Thursday, December 19, 2013

Walk this Way - Christmas Time in Europe

I know I keep saying it, but this year has just flown by. I'm not sure what it is, but when you are a kid, the holidays can't come fast enough and the days seem to drag forever. As an adult, however, the days just don't have enough hours in them and the to-do list never ends. In any case, we are just a couple of days away from the start of the winter holiday and our venture back to the US! Time is ticking!

Galeries Lafayette
This month has been crazy busy as always. Thanksgiving was a blur of a week. We hosted several families, most of whom had never had an American Thanksgiving meal before. Though it is always a tremendous amount of work, it really is wonderful to share the day with others. The boys were in school on Thanksgiving day, but we celebrated that evening. Since Joe's company celebrates American holidays, we took advantage of his long weekend and headed to Paris the following day to kick start the Christmas season. Paris, as always, didn't disappoint. The lights and decorations along the Champs Élysée were amazing, as was the tree in Galeries Lafayette and the windows at Au Printemps. It almost felt like New York at Christmas - including the crowds! We spent our days shopping the Christmas markets and checking out the department stores. Nights were for great dinners out. Our first night we enjoyed a lovely Italian meal at Il Sorrentino near the Eiffel Tour. The boys enjoyed the homemade ravioli, while I tried the truly wicked specialty of the house, tagliolini fromaggi, a lovely pasta dish flambéed right inside the wheel of tagliolini cheese, with a dash of grappa. It was heavenly! The following night the boys were craving steak frites. After a quick flip through Trip Advisor, we headed our way to the St. Germain area of town where we stood in line at Le Relais de l'Entrecote. The reviews were spot on - the line seemed long at first, but moved quite quickly. The restaurant does not except reservations, but did say that folks are seated relatively quickly. Once inside, we were escorted to our table which happened to be located next to a party of Brits who had been in line right before us. No menus for this establishment - waitresses come by and ask how you wish to have your steak prepared and what you would like to drink. The steaks are served at table side along with a tossed salad and bowls of french fries. The sauce the steak is served in is as addictive as the reviewers on Trip Advisor state. It is definitely a form of pesto sauce, but the butter is very apparent! We passed on dessert there, but did stop by our favorite gelato place, Amorino, just a few short blocks away. Even in winter the blossom-shaped cones are a definite winner with the boys!

Gluhwein in Aachen

The holiday season here in Europe is an amazing time of the year. The leaves may have fallen and the skies may be grey, but the Christmas markets that pop up everywhere are a sure-fired way of getting into the holiday spirit. Most larger cities in Europe have markets, most with more than one. I have been to quite a few of them after spending 3 holiday seasons here, and Cologne still remains one of my favorites. There are three markets within walking distance of the Cathedral, each with it's own theme. The shopping is fantastic, the quality of the items are top notch, and the crowds are pleasant and friendly. Most folks go to the markets to enjoy the Gluhwein, a hot wine served in cute little glass cups that you can either keep as a souvenir or return for a small deposit.  Though I am not a huge fan of the wine, some markets have other local drinks they serve - hot chocolate with amaretto, a hot orange juice infused with spices, or an apple wine/calvados drink to name a few. New to the Luxembourg market this year was the flaming Gluhwein. This concoction is served in a special cup with a metal tab holding a cone-shaped piece of sugar, doused in rum, and lit aflame. Needless to say, it's a popular novelty this year, though it is still just Gluhwein with a clever presentation :) This year I visited several new markets - Strasbourg (France), Aachen, Monschau, and Trier (all in Germany). All of them had clever themes (including a witch-themed one in Aachen), and their own unique personalities. Some have certain products they are known for, such as the Printen cookies in Aachen or local liquors. Now that I am closing in on the last week before Christmas, I can honestly say I am marketed-out! All of them were well worth the effort and I would easily do them again - next year!

Folks do sometimes ask me how celebrating the holidays differs here in Lux, as well as what I miss from the US. There are so many little nuances that make the holidays different, but the first one that comes to mind is the lack of Black Friday. Though we may not have the rush of crazy consumers at the Walmart (there are no Walmarts here), it is nice to have the stores open for a few hours on Sundays. Yes, this is a big novelty for us since there are very few times throughout the year when stores are open on Sundays. The rules may have changed years ago in the US, but Sundays in Europe are still considered sacred for family time. With exception to a couple of sales weekends and the first Sunday of each month for those stores in the city center, stores are closed, as are many restaurants. I can't say I miss the stores being open very much. I do make a mad dash to the local Del Haize for groceries on many Sunday mornings, but otherwise have managed just fine without. You just get used to it. As for what I miss from the US this time of year? I miss the food and the tacky light tours. Europeans do not really decorate the outside of their houses, much to my son's frustration. We used to go crazy stringing lights outside, so that has taken some getting used to. Instead, we decorate a lot inside and hit the markets to enjoy the decorations. As for the food, it really is no different than any other time - I miss Tex Mex and the occasional fast food. Meals can take up to 2 hours here (yes, that's for lunch), so there are times when a Chick-Fil-A or Panera's would be wonderful here! Rumor has it, we are finally getting a Dunkin Donuts next year - needless to say, the boys are thrilled!

Finally, just a pet peeve to vent about. Now that the crowds are out in full force for those last minute shopping trips and Gluhwein, certain habits do start getting on my nerves. The main one - the unspoken rule of walking on the right. I have had this conversation so many times with other Americans, and it is inevitably something that everyone notices, especially this time of year. The expected act of moving to the right when you are walking down a sidewalk just does not exist here! You can be walking along the right side of a 15 foot wide section of the Champs Élysée, heading right towards someone and that person will expect you to move to the left! I have literally ran directly in to people who down right refuse to move over!. If you are ever in a crowded area of a European city, just watch the foot traffic. There is really no rhyme or reason as to how the crowd moves. Perhaps there might be a difference in the UK, though there you would expect people to walk on the left and move to the left as necessary, no differently than how they drive. Here, it is just plain chaos!

Anyway, we head to Texas in just a few short days. We can't wait to spend some time with family and friends in some slightly warmer weather! Here's wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season!

Merry Christmas from Lux!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Change of seasons

One of the things I truly love about Luxembourg is that, like Virginia, you actually have seasons here. Growing up in South Texas, I only knew two - summer heat, and grey, snowless winters. However, we had such a great summer here in Luxembourg this year, that there is a bit of melancholy that settles in when the leaves begin to fall and the rain returns, as it has this week.

We returned from our fall break this past Friday. Each year, Lux schools let out for the last week of October, including Halloween/All Saint's Day. This year, we headed south to Mallorca, Spain. We were in need of some vitamin D, and the island didn't disappoint. We had 6 days of mild temps and sunshine, with only 1 day of grey skies and thunderstorms. We managed to see all four corners of the island (not an easy feat given how large the island is), and would definitely return there in the future. An interesting thing to note is that the island pretty much shuts down for the season as of November 1st. So much so, that our flight attendant on Lux Air said that she would be heading to Grand Canaria this week because Lux Air discontinues its flights to Mallorca until February. Many of the hotels were already shut for the season as well. However, we found the smaller crowds perfect as we had our choice of places to go without the long lines experienced during the summer months. The highlight of our trip was chartering a sailboat for the day to tour the southeast side of the island. Our crew was made up of a couple of delightful South African sailors who took our small crew to several nice snorkeling coves and fed us a fantastic tapas lunch. I managed to swear off my seasickness (with a little medicinal help) and really enjoyed just taking in the fantastic views from the deck.

Now that vacation is over, we begin our countdown to the holidays. Thankfully, November is a bit quieter of a month now that all of the back to school events and United Nations celebrations at ISL are done. ISL celebrates its diverse population the week leading up to the fall break with several international themed luncheons and activities. Our PTO was hard at work helping the teachers and administrators plan and execute three different lunches, all in the same week. I'm sure vacation could not come quickly enough for some of our volunteers, but the lunches, as usual, were terrific. It is always fun to see the kiddos dressed up in their country's colors or costumes and sharing dishes from their home cookbooks. The week was also busy with other events. Our new Lower School building was formally inaugurated that week with a formal ribbon cutting and several dignitaries in attendance. Even the kids had the onslaught of exams that week, including the first PSAT for my oldest. Sometimes, I just find myself staring at the calendar, wondering where the months have gone.

When I started this blog (a little over 2 years ago), I started it for honest, therapeutic reasons. When I was much younger, I journaled quite a bit - the typical teenager stuff that you just couldn't share with your friends or parents, but had to get out of your system somehow. It's been years since I packed those notebooks away, but our move here, following a pretty traumatic year in Texas, found me in a place where I needed to reflect on all the changes going on. I would never in a million years have EVER shared my high school or middle school musings. However, when we found out we were moving overseas, I did find myself gravitating to any blog or website that would give me some little insight on the life we had signed ourselves up for. Because of that, I felt that, maybe, I could help others in some small way by letting them look at this experience through my eyes.  I thought that perhaps folks might be able to either determine they were up for the challenge in their upcoming move to this quirky little country, or perhaps feel some solace in knowing that they were going through the exact same experience themselves, whether if be the frustration of dealing with the local languages, or just trying to make new friends in a new and strange environment. In the past couple of years, I have received several very kind emails that help encourage me to continue sharing my experiences, and I credit them for keeping me focused, aware and thankful of this opportunity that came our way. Again, it is hard to believe that 2 years have already gone by!

Coming into the holidays, I also become much more reflective and observant of situations that my friends and acquaintances here in Lux are dealing with. My first year here, I worked the front desk at the American Women's Club and was just thankful that I had the chance to meet other women dealing with the same "new expat" issues me. Now, two years in, I have become aware of issues that all of us must face at some point, but ones that may be a bit more complicated for those of us far away from "home". The most significant issue has been aging parents. So many of my friends have had to face the death or serious illness of a parent this last year. Having lost both my parents, I can vouch that the death of a parent is indeed one of the 10 most stressful life experiences one must face. However, add to that the complication of an ocean separating you from family and close friends, and the experience can become that much more traumatic. In some cases, it is determining when you are needed back home - Is the illness a long term condition? Are there other siblings close by, or are you the only child? How long do you go back for and what arrangements need to be made? All of these are difficult when you live near your loved ones, but are so much more complicated when travel, distance and finances are involved. Being a traveling spouse, many of us find ourselves in situations where we must head back at a moment's notice, partly because we may be the only family members that aren't working. The added stress of travel and distance may not allow someone the chance to grieve or personally deal with the situation either. 

When my dad passed away a few years ago, I was making the commute between Dallas and Houston or Corpus for several months, never quite sure how long I would be staying or when I would be needed back. Personally, I found the distraction of traveling back and forth and the need to "get things done" a way of coping with the situation that I know put off my grieving brothers and family members. I am sure I came off as being robotic while dealing with the nurses or doctors, rather than the distraught daughter they expected. However, in all honesty, I reserved my personal breakdowns for those 7-8 hour drives on Texas highways. I can recall conversations with our hospice counselor warning me that the grief could overcome me in time and that I would need to deal with it when it did. Somehow, our move to Luxembourg just a few months after my dad passed away allowed me to confront the grief slowly and in a way that I could handle it best.  

We all deal with grief differently, and sometimes it can vary greatly based on the point in our lives when we are faced with it, or the experience we have when it happens - whether our loved one goes quickly or over a period of time. In either case, unresolved issues can linger, creating a whole other level of complexity, whether it be the lack of final plans or wills, or disagreements that were never dealt with. Those issues are ones we may all face if we don't take the time to address them when we have the opportunity to. In both situations, I was living away from my parents when they passed. Though my mom passed quickly and unexpectedly 10 years before my dad, I found the slow passing of my father to be much more difficult to bear. I can't begin to imagine the heartache involved when an ocean separates you from the ones you care about and the family support system many of us rely on. However, I do feel that God puts us in a position to face our toughest battles in a way He feels we can best overcome the situation. In my case, our family moved from Virginia to Texas only months before my dad's cancer diagnosis, which allowed me to be closer to home his final months.  We moved to Luxembourg only months after the funeral, allowing me to overcome my grief through the challenge of new experiences and challenges. Whatever the case may be, it does help to know that others are going through similar circumstances, and we can derive strength in knowing that when it comes to family, even an ocean can't really separate us from the ones we care most about. 

That all being said, as we travel through our own seasons of life, we must remember that God does have a plan for each of us. We may not always understand why, but each person we meet and each experience we face builds our character and prepares us for what might be just around the corner. As these months and years keep flying by, I know in my heart my next challenge is watching my sons head off to college. At least I know that I have friends who are facing that same challenge as well this year, and I know I can learn from them what to expect. In the meantime, I will cherish these little breaks in our routines, knowing that soon enough my fall breaks will be trips for Parent's Weekend somewhere across the pond and I will look back fondly at those hectic weeks of school projects and activities.

Monday, October 7, 2013


J (age 3), playing with the seagulls in Corpus Christi, TX
I didn't realize it when I woke up this morning. Perhaps it was the text from J telling me he was sick after his weekend camping trip and wanted to stay home from school today. Perhaps it was just the general rush to get dressed and answer email and check FaceBook before starting my day. Whatever it was, it wasn't until I was sitting in Bible study this morning that I realized... I'm homesick.

It admittedly doesn't happen often. I really love our life here in Lux and wouldn't exchange it for anything at this point in my life. But sometimes there is a trigger that occurs during the course of my day, something that suddenly overcomes me, and I come to realize that I miss... the familiar.

I started Bible study classes just a week ago. A friend of mine, who just spent 3 years in Moscow, decided to start the group after having attended one shortly after she moved here last winter. I had actually met her via email before she ever moved here, as we share a mutual friend back in Texas and our boys are roughly the same ages. I had made the determination that this year I would try to focus a little more attention on myself - workout more, eat better, etc. - so I really wasn't looking to add another "class" to the two French classes I was already taking, but something really compelled me to take it on. I will also admit that finding a church has not been a priority since we moved here. Not that I didn't try. I did take the boys to church once shortly after we moved here, but it just wasn't the right one. There are only a handful of English speaking churches to begin with, so I really have no excuse. Life got busy and our weekends short, so it seemed easier for now to take on a Bible study for myself before plunging the family forward into a church relationship.

Beth Moore

In any case, I had never heard of Beth Moore until last week. I'm not really sure why I hadn't, except for maybe the fact that I have only been to one other Bible study during my short return to Texas 3 years ago. In any case, after watching the first DVD lesson with my fellow classmates, I felt like I was back in Texas. No, Beth Moore isn't from Texas (I believe she was born in Wisconsin and raised in Arkansas), but she seems to have been one of those transplants that got to Texas as soon as she could. Her accent is spot on and her body language and use of stories just drips "Southern." I'm not sure what my fellow European classmates think of her, but they did admit that she takes a "bit of getting used to." My friends from Texas will know what I mean (regardless of whether or not they have heard of her), but she is just one of those Southern ladies that you can immediately relate to because somewhere in your lifetime you had a "Beth Moore" in your life - an aunt, a cousin, a neighbor or a friend. Someone who has an energy about God and her faith for which she can barely contain her excitement, but who remains a "lady" in her demeanor despite how much she wants to share that excitement with you. In any case, I can name several of my friends whose mothers share very similar characteristics and they have all held special places in my heart. Perhaps because I lost my own mother 16 years ago, and their willingness and excitement to take me in as a "step-daughter" of sorts, still means so much to me. They are the women that will not hesitate to give you that big bear hug when she knows you need one. They are the women who feel a good southern meal will cure all ailments. And, they are the women that books and movies (like "Steel Magnolias") are made about.

B and J playing in the leaves - 2006
So, homesickness. Another Bible study video this morning, and the memories flood back. It's not that I am homesick for Texas or Virginia specifically. I recognize those chapters or periods of my life for what they were and realize that we are in Luxembourg now for a reason. I love living here and have developed some very close friendships that I wouldn't trade for anything. However, I miss the familiar. I miss the quiet afternoon at a Starbuck's, reading a book or catching up with a friend. I miss gardening and watching the boys (and dogs) play in the leaves in our backyard. I miss being able to pick up the phone to call a friend, without hanging the phone up after realizing it would be the middle of the night back in the States. But what comes crashing down when I look back on those chapters of my life, is that I miss the past more than I miss the places. I would never be able to return to any of those places and expect things to be the way they were years ago. Friends have moved on, their children have grown up, and the neighborhoods have transitioned with new families. I know that we are creating new memories and traditions here and there will come a day that I will be homesick for Lux. But sitting here, on a fall day, wondering what my boys would be doing if we were somewhere back on the other side of the Atlantic, I have to remind myself that there will come a day when we will return to the US and a new chapter will begin while this one ends. In the meantime, I will enjoy meeting new friends in my French class or at my boys' school. I will embrace new challenges, like Bible study in a foreign country. And I will learn to appreciate every blessing God gives me - whether it is the mother of a friend willing to embrace a middle-aged "orphan" like me, or the opportunity to see my sons thrive in a new culture. Whatever it may be, I will get past the homesickness and learn to enjoy the ride.
The Petrusse Valley, Luxembourg

Biking in Bruges

 Fall is, by far, my favorite season here in Europe. One of the best aspects of living here, especially compared to Texas, is that you (generally) have actual seasons. Even though spring came quite late this year, summer was beautiful and the autumn is proving to fair just as well. We still get our stints of rain, but each week we have had some very lovely days as well.

September was just a blur of activity with the kids heading back to school. It has been especially busy at ISL. The school celebrated the grand opening of the new Lower School building, significant upgrades to the Upper School, as well as the start of its 50th anniversary year. Being a part of the PTO, this has meant an endless stream of Back to School festivities and a slightly altered school year - the lower school students started back a week later to allow the teachers and staff to get moved and settled into the new building. Now that we have finally reached October, things are settling down a bit. Therefore, we found the first opportunity possible to take a long weekend and venture somewhere new!

Although we have been to several places in Belgium (Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, etc.), we had not had
City Center of Bruges
the chance to make it to Bruges. I had heard so many enchanting stories about how beautiful the city is - had even seen the movie - but had just not quite managed to get there. After hearing so much about it, I knew I had to cross it off my list this year. So, last weekend we finally made it. It took some creative planning as Joe was returning from a business trip in the US, but we planned ahead of time and routed Joe's return trip through Brussels. The boys and I picked him up from the airport Friday after lunch and headed straight on to Bruges. I had rented an apartment that was located just outside the main square, close to parking and several lovely shops and restaurants. We spent our first day walking around and exploring the city. We also took a carriage ride around the city (something that several friends had recommended), and really enjoyed learning more about the history and folklore from our carriage driver.

Sign on the Wall of Beers
One of the MANY
chocolate shops
As with any city in Belgium, the emphasis always seems to be on chocolate and beer. Any street you venture down, you are guaranteed to see at least a handful of chocolate shops and numerous pubs and restaurants serving the various Trappist Monk beers the country is famous for. Joe and I aren't much into beer, but when in Belgium... I stuck to the flavored ones (cherry, apple, raspberry), while Joe took in some of the Trappist varieties (Orval, Leffe, etc.) The kids made sure we returned to Luxembourg with a collage of chocolate truffles. Every window we passed had an amazing display, making it that much more difficult to choose.

On our second day out, we spent more time walking through the city. As you may guess, Bruges is best experienced on foot. The joy of the city is being able to venture down small, narrow, cobblestoned streets and losing yourself in the moment while appreciating the past. We often find ourselves using a Rick Steves guide for many of our European walking tours, just so that we can read through the pages and learn a little history as we make our way through the tiny and often not-well-marked streets. He gives a great overview of most European cities, and his books will generally allow you to take an abbreviated approach to touring ones when you have limited time to explore. We also took in a canal cruise, allowing us a different perspective of the medieval city. Some of the canals used to be part of the moat surrounding the city during the medieval period. The canals have tremendous historical significance, given that Bruges, at one time, was one of the largest cities in Europe, full of wealthy textile merchants and tradesmen. Now just a quaint town that thrives off tourism, Bruges is still a gem with fantastic architecture and a vibrant shopping district with many upscale restaurants.

Riding over the bridge into Damme
On our final day, we decided to book a bike tour. Rather than focusing more on the city, we chose a tour that ventured out into the countryside. We chose an early tour with The Pink Bear biking company, also recommended by Rick Steves. Our tour guide was great - friendly and helpful, both with the  booking and the tour itself. We had one other American couple who joined us for the tour. They had been in Europe for about a week and were passing through Bruges on their way to Amsterdam. Both were in their, maybe, late 40's or early 50's, and had not been on bikes in quite some time. After a slow tour of the parking lot, the husband seemed perfectly fine on his bike, but the wife was another story. She admitted to not having been on a bike in over 15 years, but I would venture to guess it had been longer than that. In all honestly, it had probably been at leasst 10 years since I had been on a bike myself, but thank goodness I managed to keep up with the boys and not be intimidated by the traffic getting through the city. Our tour mates - not so much. They started the tour in front of us, the wife weaving back and forth and always looking as if she were going to tumble over at any given time. The first time she encountered car traffic from her right, she screamed bloody murder and almost fell off her bike right in front of the car. Minutes later, as we worked our way out of the city towards the small town of Damme, the wife veered straight towards the canal we were riding next to and came within inches of falling right in. (Thankfully, it was at the beginning of the canal which had a railing that kept her from diving in.)
Windmill near Damme

Things never really got better for her. The couple finally moved to the back of the pack in an effort to keep from holding us up. However, the tour guide was getting more than a little frustrated. She had been under the impression that all of the riders present that day could manage the trip and had hoped to return a little early in order to meet up with her out-of-town guests for lunch. (The bike tour on the website clearly states that the tour is "really easy" or I wouldn't have booked it myself!)

All in all, I think we counted 6 times this poor women fell of her bike. Her last fall was literally on her way back into the small parking lot where the garage for the bikes was located. Our tour guide said (jokingly, of course) that the woman should do a victory lap around the parking lot to celebrate her accomplishment of finishing the tour. The woman quickly turned the offer down as she slowly began her final fall from the bike. Like a slow-motion scene out of a movie, the wife slid off her bike, onto the hard concrete (with the bike on top of her), while her husband frantically searched for their camera so that he could take a picture! I am sure the wife was hoping to purge the whole tour from her mind as soon as possible, but the husband was determined to capture the finale! The husband never did come over to her to offer her a hand up - instead, Joe rushed over to help the poor woman while the husband clicked away with his iPhone. While they finished returning their bikes to the tour guide, our family quickly left, partly because we were starving, but mostly for fear we would not be able to hold back our giggles for much longer. Bless her heart - I doubt she will be taking a bike anywhere, anytime soon!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Summer Days...

Texas Sunset
This being our third summer in this quirky little country, it still amazes me how quickly the weeks fly by. Seems like yesterday since I whisked the kids off from school (directly to the airport) and headed to Texas for our two week American fix. We had a fantastic time visiting family in Texas, not to mention shopping and getting our fill of our favorite foods! It honestly felt like we ate our way across the Lone Star state - BBQ, Tex Mex, Whataburger - you name it. But like all vacations, our days in the Texas heat quickly came to an end and we found ourselves flying out of Houston in this amazing sunset. It seemed like God was telling us we would be back soon, but leaving us a lovely picture to remember Texas by.

We were only in Lux for a week before heading out for the European leg of our vacation. My in-laws celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year, so we wanted to celebrate by giving them a vacation they would always remember. We gave them a choice of several places to choose from, none of which we had been to ourselves. Within a few days they had decided - they wanted to see Ireland. In all honesty, I had thrown Ireland on the list at the last minute. I just had a gut feeling that they might want to see the Emerald Isle, even though I had never really considered it for ourselves. Needless to say, I had a lot of research to do once the choice had been made.
Rainbow over Dingle

Just a few hours into my research, I was very happy they had made the choice they had. Ireland turned out to be one of our favorite trips! The people were absolutely lovely, the landscape was breathtaking, and the incredible variations in weather kept me in awe as to how quickly our surroundings could change. We spent many of our days just driving through the countryside or experiencing our surroundings - walking along the beach, hiking along the hills, or just looking out onto the Atlantic from the window of the house we were staying in. We had a great time eating at the pubs and learning many of the traditional songs, the rich history and the imaginative folklore for which the country is known. As I listened to one pub band in a little place in Dingle sing Johnny Mathis' song "40 Shades of Green," I completely understood why he was so enchanted on his visit to Ireland many years ago.

We also had a lovely time spending our few weeks here in Luxembourg. Each summer is filled with music festivals, dinners on the terrace, and weekends walking amongst the tourists in the city center. The weather this year has been absolutely stellar, with temperatures in the 70's and clear blue skies almost every day we have been here. I am finally getting the opportunity to do some of the hiking I had been longing to do all spring. There are so many hiking trails through canopied forests, local parks, grapevines along the Moselle, or fields of cows and sheep in the countryside that it is actually difficult to decide where to go. However, I am in no hurry to see them all. I really am trying to learn to slow down a bit and take in the details of this beautiful little country.  I truly feel fortunate that my family and I have this incredible opportunity. Therefore, I want to experience and cherish every second of it.

Along with summer comes some of the other nuances of living abroad. With Luxembourg having the heavy expat community that it does, each year you face the inevitable - saying goodbye to friends who are moving on. This year seemed to be a big one for us. I have a close friend who warned me of this, and by choice she tends to steer clear of potential friends who are here for short periods of time. I had adopted this philosophy early on. However, there was one particular lady who came to Lux in the fall last year that changed my mind on this perspective. She was very clear that she was only here for a few months, so I avoided getting close as best as I could. However, we ended up alone together on a day trip to France and we connected instantly. I am so grateful that we did. I would have really missed out on getting to know this person, which would have been such a loss. Not only did she teach me about the forests near where we live, she taught me to live life as fully as possible since you just never where life may lead you next. This was maybe her 11th or 12th move, and she has since moved on to Canada. We still keep in touch and I will always be grateful that she changed how I view each person that enters my life.

Other friends have moved on as well, so now my family and I must approach this next year in Luxembourg from a new perspective and with other friends by our side - some of which we probably haven't even met yet. Even though we see our time in this country as indefinite, we really don't know just how long we have. So, I hope to have new friends to guide me along the way, and new experiences to encounter each day. I no longer have the fear of losing friends to other places, but rather a new attitude towards what I may miss out by not saying "hi" or reaching out to that new expat that is just starting his/her adventure here in Lux. No matter how short their stay may be, we can share the experiences along the way and add dimension and character to our lives by embracing the day and what it brings by learning from each other as we go. It may be a bumpy road ahead, but I have learned that making friends here is so much easier than what I experienced with the frenetic lifestyle we had in the US. Perhaps it is all the extra time us traveling spouses have, but each person still has to choose how to fill those hours. I am quickly learning that I don't have ENOUGH hours in my day to experience it all, so I have to prioritize how I want to allocate my time. For now, I just want to savor each day and learn to live in the moment. Some day it will be my turn to say goodbye and close the chapter on this book. In the mean time, I intend to make this chapter the best one :)

Monday, July 1, 2013


We've only been back in Texas for a couple of days now, so I have not quite gotten on the time zone. Two days of travel apparently wasn't enough, so it seems insomnia may just be the cure to my lack of blog posts!
Just a few days ago, a friend and I were talking about some of the nuances about living in Europe. She is Italian and was telling me about her expat life, having lived 3 years in Germany and now a couple in Luxembourg. Even though driving from Italy to Luxembourg or even Germany can take just a matter of hours (I compare it to driving from Dallas to Corpus - seriously, takes about the same number of hours by car), it really is amazing how different the cultures between countries can be. Some are quite stereotypical - French can be serious and sometimes quite negative (think, Debbie Downer), Germans can be rigid, Luxembourgers can be aloof or standoffish, and Italians - well, they are just down right... passionate! We were actually trying to pin point what it was that makes Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, etc. such passionate and "touchy" people! My husband and I both have Mexican fathers and English/Irish/Scottish mothers, which makes an interesting mix when you think about it. British are mostly formal in their mannerisms, so PDA is not exactly a norm for them. Mexicans, on the other hand, can be very "touchy" folks, often giving strangers hugs or providing comfort or attention by touching an arm or patting the top of a child's head. So, though I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a "touchy" type of person, I guess I am a bit more on the affectionate end of the spectrum, especially in Luxembourg. My friend and I chalked it up to the fact that affectionate countries all have one thing in common... we are all from the "South"!

Maybe it's the hot weather, but no matter where you go, it seems that if you reside somewhere near the equator, you tend to be a bit more on the affectionate side. Again, thrown into a country with such a large mix of cultures, this characteristic becomes that much more apparent when you attend a party or social function. You just are never quite sure how to greet friends, acquaintances, and new-comers! That being said, the bigger challenge is the welcome "kiss". One of the first things folks will tell you when you move to Lux is that the customary welcome with friends involves 3 alternating kisses on the cheek. This is an important little tidbit of information, because, though we generally know that Europeans welcome one another through this customary kissing practice, it does vary from country to country. There is still the challenge of which cheek to start with, but at least you know not to stop at the traditionally French version of just one kiss on each cheek! The funnier aspect of this custom is that it can be quite a lengthy process just getting in the door given the amount of expected kissing! I sometimes feel like a pigeon, pecking my way through the crowd, but I have to admit... I like this endearing tradition! In Texas, it seems customary for women to greet each other with the quick hug and perhaps the air kiss if you know each other well, while the men do the combo handshake - shoulder slap thing. Still affectionate by most standards. Consider this - just try to work your way through this social challenge when you attend a party that also has folks from New York or Boston! Well, I am often confronted with social encounters that not only include folks from the North East, but also Germany and the U.K. -  an interesting dynamic given their more formal introductions that may or may not include a simple handshake. Generally, I opt for just a hello and a simple nod, since I am done trying to decipher expectations in those situations!

So, if you are new to the country (or Europe in general), these little customary acts take some getting used to. I can't help but smile and get caught up in the moment when I find myself surrounded by Italian or Portugese friends! In just a small way, I feel like I am back home. So, what do Europeans think of Americans? Well, I have to admit.. it depends on their prior experiences with Americans. If one has mostly encountered folks from the North, than visions of New York pop into their heads and the perception is one of people constantly on the move and perhaps too busy to smell the roses. However, even given that mental image, the common remark I often hear is that Americans are.... happy! Affectionate or not, I guess the American dream or the happy endings of Hollywood have built up the perception that Americans are always happy. One could argue this given just a little bit of a reality check. (Americans are also the largest consumers of anti-depressants and ADHD/ADD medications. Go figure.) I think I will just stick to my personal analysis. Southerners are more passionate because we view life from a slower pace. We learn to smell the roses, appreciate a good sunset, and learn that life is just that much more enjoyable when greeted with a hug or a kiss. Bisous!

Living in a Multi-Cultural World...

Even though I have been in Luxembourg for almost 2 years now, I am still amazed at just how diverse our little country is. By definition, I do expect it in an international school, and ISL definitely fits the bill on that. Just walk through the front doors and you are immediately welcomed by a cacophony of accents and languages that can be both inviting and startling. I absolutely love the fact that my boys have the privilege to have this experience, and although English is the spoken language in the classroom, the opportunity to learn French and German at an in-depth level helps to remind us that there is a larger world beyond our English-speaking boundaries.

I have been taking French classes at the Institute National des Langues for about a year and a half now. There are a ton of language school options in Luxembourg, from Prolingua, Berlitz, AWCL group classes to private tutors - all of which have their pros and cons. I have tried several, but have found the INL to be the most affordable, flexible and comprehensive option. Though the website and registration process can be a bit frustrating and intimidating (the website is in French and does not always cooperate with Google translate), once you get through the initial registration process, signing up for classes becomes pretty routine. The school offers classes is French, Luxembourgish, Portugese, German, Spanish, English, Dutch, and more. You can also choose how many classes per week you wish to take, as well as classes that concentrate on just one discipline of a language - speaking, writing, etc.

It is in these classes that I realize just how diverse life is here. I am usually one of maybe 2 or 3 Americans in my class of 20 or so students, and each semester the class has had a different mix of nationalities. My first class was comprised mostly of Eastern Europeans who were seeking asylum in Luxembourg. Many were quite poor, had escaped poor or war stricken countries, and were desperately trying to learn one of the local languages in hopes of finding a job. Last semester, I had quite a few younger classmates who had moved here with their significant other or spouse and wanted to be able to communicate better in the community. Most of them were from Western Europe - Spain, Portugal, Italy, The Netherlands - and picked up French so quickly. I would just sit back in wonder at how these young kids could learn a new language in just a matter of weeks. Several of them were young au pairs who are given language class allowances as part of their compensation. This last semester, most of my classmates were young professionals looking to communicate more effectively in their jobs. Again, most were Western Europeans, but many of them worked in law, finance, or international business, hoping to be able to communicate at a higher level with their French or Luxembourgish co-workers. Each class has had a different flair to it, and each one provided me the opportunity to make friends with people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all walks of life. In my, well, 40+ years I have never had such an incredible experience!

Seems life can be very 2-dimensional when you spend your days surrounded only by people who look and sound like you. Don't get me wrong - I love the South and am often homesick for the slow drawl of a native Texan, or the sing-songy sounds of a southern belle - but I have quickly learned to appreciate the lovely sound of the amazing mix of accents that Luxembourg can provide. Just standing in Place d'Armes or at a cafe in the Grund, you can experience such a dizzying array of sounds and cultures! You just have to slow your pace a bit and take the time to truly absorb the experience!

The boys and I are back in Texas for a couple of weeks - a kick off for our summer break. It didn't take long for us to dive head first back into the Southern way of life - great Texas BBQ, cooling off at the neighborhood pool, and purchasing tickets for the next Astros game (yes, we need a baseball fix.) I honestly try to control any hints of a southern accent while I am in Lux, mostly because I endured 3 years of teasing while I lived in Chicago. The boys were quick to point out the change at dinner when the first "ya'll" popped out of my mouth. What can I say? There's no place like "home" ;-)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hazy Shade of Winter

Buergbrennen - photo by Charel Bidoli (
I hate to whine. I really do. But, being a Texan, I am used to the sun, and this winter has really been a long, grey, drawn-out ordeal. I do know I tend to be a bit sensitive to seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as the Winter Blues), so I have definitely been popping those vitamins D pills, but I don't think I have ever felt so sun deprived!  I am told that this winter has been a bit unusual. Given that the weather EVERYWHERE has been "unusual," what is really "usual"? It can be a bit surreal watching the news here and seeing the U.S. be battered time and time again by some "unusual" hurricane, snow storm, etc. It seems we could all use a break from this onslaught of winter. Besides, I could have sworn I saw Phil declare an early end to winter this year!

Okay, so maybe Phil has no known influence on European winters. In fact, I doubt many Europeans even know about Punxutawney Phil, and would find it rather odd that we wake up on February 2nd in eager anticipation as to whether or not this notable rodent will see his shadow. That being said, Luxembourg has its own odd celebrations for the end of winter. Probably the best known event here in Luxembourg would have to be the Buergbrennen. Although I have not had the chance to attend one of the local celebrations, it is by far the one that is most disturbing to Americans, only because for those of us brought up in the South, cross burnings mean something VERY different than what it symbolizes here. Buergbrennen is a long celebrated tradition in Luxembourg. Villages throughout the country put great use to their dried up Christmas trees by fashioning them into a cross and setting them on fire. This is generally preceded by a church service and a torchlit parade through the city. The bonfire itself represents the "burning" of winter and the beginning of longer days and shorter nights.

Unfortunately, we haven't been able to make it to the Buergbrennen these last couple of years. This year, however, the boys and I did manage to make it to a smaller celebration in Remich (a small wine town near the German border) called Stréimännchen. Similar in concept, and generally held on Ash Wednesday, locals create a large straw man (think scarecrow from "Wizard of Oz," only 10 feet tall and holding an empty bottle of Cremant) and parade him through the narrow streets of the small border town, accompanied by the typical, boisterous "oompah" bands. Once they reach the Moselle River, which separates Luxembourg from Germany, the music becomes more solemn and the parade transitions into a funeral procession. The straw man's journey ends at the mid point of the bridge where he is lit on fire and tossed into the Moselle river, again, symbolizing the end of winter, the end of carnival, and the beginning of lent. I have to admit - the boys thought this ritual was a bit on the creepy side, not to mention a bit un-environmental given the burning "trash" tossed into the river, but I love that Luxembourg has these unique and often "quirky" events. 

Speaking of quirky celebrations, I happen to be writing this post on "Bretzelsonndeg." Similar to Valentine's Day, Bretzelsonndeg is just another day and another opportunity for men to express their love or interest in a girl by presenting them with, what else... a pretzel. In fact, the larger the pretzel, the more the implied, um, affection :) If the feeling is mutual, the boy will likely receive a chocolate egg from the girl of his affections on Easter Sunday. The exception to both of these events is leap year when roles are reversed. The straw "man" is a straw "woman," and women have the honor of presenting pretzels to their sweethearts (a la Saddie Hawkins).

Anyway, it does seem that Luxembourgers have enough rituals around the riddance of winter that I am not alone in my quest for sunnier days and spring flowers. Spring break is quickly approaching and we will definitely be heading towards warmer temperatures and sunny beaches. In the meantime, it seems we are expecting another 1-3 inches of snow in the next couple of days. Guess I won't be putting that snow shovel up just yet...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Let it snow...a little

The last few weeks have honestly been quite a blur. As much as I love the holidays, sometimes they just suck you in and spit you out into January. December seems to have been a haze of hectic shopping, stubborn illnesses, missed French classes and a rather uncomfortable house pet (our golden retriever had surgery). That was before we even left to the States for the holidays. Yes, our house has been quite busy these last few weeks, so it is a welcomed relief to have things slow down a bit as they seem to in January.

We actually had our first snow in December. In fact, there was one week where we had a decent few inches and the kids were (sort of) let home early. Apparently fears of large amounts of snow and difficult driving situations from a couple of years ago are still quite prevalent around the boys' school. This picture was actually taken that day. Though we didn't quite receive the anticipated snowfall (it seemed to have magically stopped as soon as word hit Facebook that parents were free to pick up their children early from school), it was quite lovely and helped to get everyone into the holiday spirit. This week, we returned to a similar picture, though no snow days for the young. Instead, just messy roads, crazy traffic, and lots of shoveling and salt tossing. In Luxembourg, you are responsible for clearing your sidewalks so that the walkways are safe for pedestrians. As fate would have it, it seems to ALWAYS snow on a work day. I shouldn't complain. The shoveling is great exercise and I could certainly use the opportunity to work off the calories I took on back in the States, but here is the bold truth. I hate snow. Really, I hate the stuff. It's cold. It's slippery. It turns to black muck and makes the streets a mess. It requires salt to dissolve, which means we deal with salt marks on our clothes, our cars, our floors, etc. Maybe it's because I am from Texas and didn't even see snow for the first time until I was 18, but 20+ years later, I've grown to hate the stuff. It's fine when I am on vacation, skiing maybe, hanging out in a hotel or resort where someone else can deal with the resulting headaches and mess. However, when I have to shovel and clean up after it, it quickly loses its appeal. Even my kids are past the snowman age (though I am sure they would be game for sledding) and would prefer to stay indoors than mess with the stuff. Yes, it makes everything look pretty, and that first snow fall is just magical. I do love the way it seems to hush everything and everyone, as if everyone is taking a large breathe and letting out a collective sigh. And I love to watch the snow fall  - I just prefer to watch it from my window. But I have to admit that I much prefer the snowfalls where it snows about an inch, the sun comes out and melts it a few hours later, and, even better, it happens on a weekend when we can just sit back and enjoy its beauty. Unfortunately, this week's snowfall started on Tuesday and the temperatures are low enough that it will certainly stick around for awhile. The forecast also predicts more on the way this weekend. But, I guess that will be okay. Perhaps a weekend of hot chocolate, movies and PJs are in order. Just don't expect me to shovel.