January 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
It’s embarrassing to admit, but we missed the Christmas market in Brussels this year. But we did take a drive over the border to Aachen, Germany, to take in the festivities there. The weather wasn’t great and we considered not going at all, but then we thought maybe it won’t be as crowded! Apparently it takes more than an intermittent freezing rain to keep the crowds away from Christmas cheer in these parts. (That’s what the Glühwein is for.)
Aachen seems to be a pretty little town, but honestly it was hard to get any real perspective because all of the winding streets of the center were taken over by stalls selling food, mulled wine, decorations, gingerbread and other treats, and more. There were also a few small rides for the kids (though nothing like the beauties at the market in our hometown—score one for Brussels!).
We did peek into the Aachen Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. Part of it dates back to the late 700s and was begun by Charlemagne. It was one of the first sites in Europe to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The inside is truly stunning, with incredibly ornate mosaics. We almost didn’t go in because it was very crowded, but Sebastian insisted that we do (twice, in fact). Sometimes it pays to listen to the kids.
October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that we are just days away from fall break, I find myself thinking back wistfully to the wonderful week we spent in France at the end of August. We rented a house with friends in the small town of Le Pouliguen, in the Loire-Atlantique department and just along the southern border of Brittany. It boasts (along with the town next door, the ritzier La Baule) some of the widest sandy beaches in France. But it also has la côte sauvage—the wild coast—consisting of rocky coves and tide pools and dramatic, windswept vistas. Add to this wonderful daily markets, charming towns, scenic bike rides (even if a little heart-stopping with the kids), and the most incredible chocolate cake on the planet, and we all wished we were staying for longer than a week (even if our clothes couldn’t expand enough to keep up). « Read the rest of this entry »
August 21, 2014 § 2 Comments
It’s less than two weeks before back-to-school around here, which means another summer is almost over. I also know this to be true because yesterday we were up at 4 a.m. following our return from California to Brussels, and after an ill-advised 3-hour nap in the afternoon, the boys were still up playing at 10:45 last night. You’d think this was the first time we’d done this! They were both great travelers, even though they only slept for two hours (total travel time: 23 hours). Our highly anticipated nearly five-week, bicoastal trek is now behind us.
It’s not easy being so far from family and friends (and believe me, California especially does feel far). There is not enough time with the former, and it’s impossible to find a way to see all of the latter. And yet we feel very lucky to be here: experiencing a different culture, having so many opportunities at our fingertips. While travel possibilities should not be understated, some of my greatest joy of living in this place at this time comes from watching our kids find their legs in a new country. On a practical level, I love that they are soaking up a new language. But they are also (hopefully) learning that they are adaptable, that there is a big world out there and they can make their way anywhere in it, that leaving what is familiar to you isn’t always easy but it is worthwhile—and, often, fun. (Of course our embrace of all things different still leaves room for cursing local quirks such as mind-boggling bureaucracy and stores’ odd opening hours.) « Read the rest of this entry »
March 31, 2014 § 2 Comments
This weekend we celebrated Frank’s birthday. And while it was a great weekend, what made it great in part was that is was so ordinary—with one delicious exception (see below). Our days were basically spent within a fifteen-foot radius of our house, save for the kids who were constantly up and down the street (and Frank did ride his bike to fetch some Sunday papers). Instead of a day trip to another town or even a picnic in the park, both of which we considered, it was about impromptu gatherings with neighbors—ranging in age from eighteen months to eighty-two years—sidewalk chalk and bubbles, bikes and scooters, afternoon cake, coffee, and folding chairs on the sidewalk, and then some more cake (this time of the birthday sort). Did I mention it was 72 degrees and sunny?
On Saturday night Frank and I did venture out for a pretty special dinner at Comme Chez Soi, a Brussels institution with two Michelin stars that is run by the fourth generation of the same family. We got the five-course tasting menu that included some incredibly delicate seafood dishes, rack of lamb with sweet spices, couscous, green cabbage, and lardons, and a deconstructed cannelloni served in a broth made from exotic fruits. And this being Belgium, after we were “done,” it seemed someone kept passing our table and offering a small chocolate or leaving a tiny plate of something sweet.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
January 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
It’s called classe verte, and it goes like this: nearly all elementary school classes take a trip away—whether it be to the countryside, the coast, or the mountains—that lasts several nights (or in our case, a full school week). Yes, this starts with first grade: in other words, six-year-olds. In fact, these trips often begin in the Belgian equivalent of preschool. It is not unheard of for four-year-olds to pack their bags and get out of town. This is madness, right? I have certainly spent the past months thinking so. As Sebastian’s own trip drew closer, things got a little tense around here. While of course not participating was always an option, it is considered a week of school, and there is a lot of pressure to make sure the entire class goes.
Not much arm-twisting is generally needed, however. The whole idea is very normal here. The parents of Sebastian’s classmates did it when they were this age, and probably their parents did as well. I asked countless people their thoughts. I was mostly met with shrugging shoulders and promises that they have an amazing time. The more people I talked to, and the more I learned about what they would be doing, I started to get it. In addition to some classwork, they would be playing outside, feeding the farm animals, enjoying spectacles (and, it turns out, going on an evening scavenger hunt with flashlights, having dance parties, and eating bread sprinkled with sugar for dinner). It did sound like fun.
Still, I couldn’t fathom pushing a terrified child onto a bus to do something I was only just coming to terms with myself. We told Sebastian—who kept asking if he could be sick that week—that if he really didn’t want to go, we wouldn’t force him. Then we set about bribing him with everything we could think of. Darth Vader slippers were purchased. He got a sleeping bag and long underwear that made him look like a ninja. We told him he’d get a letter from us every day. We talked it up endlessly. And ultimately, it worked. He started feeling excited himself. He told people he was going to a “castle.” He wanted to pack his bag three days before they left.
Now he’s back. He did have an amazing time. He sounds different. He seems more confident somehow. After such a hard transition to this new school and new language, maybe this is exactly what he needed—to feel independent, to cement new friendships. And I really do respect the philosophy behind it all: that kids, even young ones, are capable and curious; that not all learning happens in the classroom; that it’s just as important to learn how to bake bread and feed the goats (and Big Mama the guinea pig) as it is to study addition and proper handwriting. It wasn’t easy—we worried, we wondered—but in the end it was absolutely the right thing to do.
January 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but I am certainly not one to be left out of a holiday with its own special cake. January 6 is Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany—which celebrates the visit of the three magi to baby Jesus, thereby revealing him to be the son of God. (Biblical scholars feel free to jump in here.) While this day doesn’t make such a splash in the U.S., in Europe it is a different story, and many regions have their own traditional sweet associated with it. In much of France and Belgium people head to the local bakery to pick up a galette des rois, a cake made of puff pastry and filled with almond paste. Inside the cake is a small trinket (or fève in French), and whoever receives this in their slice is the king for the day and gets to wear the crown that comes with the cake. (The trinket is normally made of porcelain—chewer beware!)
A few years back, we had a dear friend from France over for lunch on Kings’ Day, and she brought such a galette. She said the tradition when serving it is for the children to go under the table, and as each slice is put on a plate the children say who should get that piece. This way even if the surprise is visible in a slice no one can cheat. We carried on that tradition today, and boy was it popular.