School is different here

May 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Sebastian recently returned from his second weeklong trip away with his class. Compared with last year’s hand-wringing, this year it felt almost normal. Why shouldn’t a group of first- and second-graders go off to spend four nights in a dorm, exploring forests and caves, going fishing, and having dance parties? Before arriving in Belgium, we spent a fair amount of time wondering about the language-immersion aspect of the kids starting school here. But now with nearly two years of school under our belts, I find myself reflecting on some of the (admittedly subjective) things that have nothing to do with language that have surprised us—or made us anxious or crazy or just plain confused.

The school experience here has been an education for all of us. It has pushed us to be patient and to trust in a system that feels very different from what we are used to in more ways than I ever expected. Though it hasn’t been easy, I am grateful for the glimpse of something truly different. It is so easy nowadays to pick up and live somewhere else and yet effortlessly keep up with so much from home. (I can often tell you the New York weather forecast thanks to Morning Edition on WNYC.) In the end, though, it’s been our kids who have lived this different life for two years—who have done most of the hard work and, hopefully, gained from this unique time in their lives. « Read the rest of this entry »

Chocolate cake for a rainy Wednesday (+ recipe!)

June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On Wednesdays, school in Belgium lets out at noon. This might seem like a cushy deal (for the kids anyway), but in my experience Wednesday is the craziest day of the week. There’s the mad dash home for lunch, persuading the youngest and soon-to-be-grumpy member of the family to take a nap, and then waking him up prematurely (and grumpy) in order to get to whatever activity has been signed up for. So on a recent gray and rainy Wednesday it didn’t take too much complaining of some probably make-believe malady to convince me to skip the activity for one day—and make a chocolate cake instead. Not just any chocolate cake, but one made with olive oil. It’s based on this recipe by Nigella Lawson, which I came across recently. I made the version that uses flour instead of ground almonds. I used a little bit less sugar and mixed all-purpose and whole wheat flours. Unsurprisingly for a chocolate cake from Nigella, it is delicious. It’s very moist, and while the olive oil taste isn’t at all overpowering, you can tell this cake is a little different. And because we all know how good cocoa is for us, I think this could even be considered almost healthy, right? (RIGHT?)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Nigella says to beat the eggs, olive oil, and sugar until they are a “pale primrose” color. Is this right? I actually have no idea what color primrose is.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Have I mentioned how in love I am with my covered cake plate?photo 1-6photo-78 Here’s the recipe (in metric, but you can search online for cup equivalents):

Chocolate–Olive Oil Cake

  • 50 g good-quality cocoa powder (sifted)
  • 125 ml boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 125 g flour (I used all-purpose and whole wheat)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 150 ml olive oil
  • 200 grams sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 325°F/170°C. Grease 9-inch springform pan with olive oil. Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl, and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract and set aside to cool. In another smallish bowl, combine the flour with baking soda and salt. Put the sugar, olive oil, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat vigorously for about 3 minutes, or until you have a pale primrose, aerated, thickened cream. Turn the speed down and pour in the cocoa mixture. Once it is all incorporated, fold in the flour mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes (Nigella says 40–45 minutes, but mine was done sooner), or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. Let cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, and then ease the sides of the cake with a thin spatula and remove it from the pan.

Allons au château!

January 28, 2014 § 6 Comments

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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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAP1195996OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Domaine de Nettinne:Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 2.45.51 PMvertes_clip_image004

Some photos from Sebastian’s teacher:Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.13.23 AMScreen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.15.52 AMScreen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.14Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 12.48.36 PMScreen Shot 2014-01-25 at 12.49.42 PM

Reunited.P1246008 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Say “c’est”

September 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

Xavier's teacher has won him over by drawing a smiley face on his finger at the end of each day  (often requiring washing hands without getting his thumb wet)

Xavier’s teacher has won him over by drawing a smiley face on his finger at the end
of each day (often requiring washing hands without getting his thumb wet)

This language thing is hard. I admit that in the frenzy of dealing with all of the logistical details related to the move, I allowed it to slip fairly low on my list of worries. After all, Sebastian had a year of dual-language kindergarten under his belt, right? In truth, I knew it would be hard, but there was nothing we could really do about it until we got here, so might as well pack another box. Plus, everyone always says, “Oh kids, they are little sponges. They will pick it up in no time at all.” No doubt there is truth to that—kids do it all the time—but the “no time at all” kind of glosses over those weeks and months in the beginning when you simply don’t understand a word that’s being spoken to you. It’s hard for me really fathom that that is how Sebastian and Xavier are spending every day right now.

It has been understandably difficult for Sebastian especially to make friends so far. In the very beginning, on a few occasions I tried to make some inroads with kids in his class by smiling at them, asking their names, and introducing Sebastian. Then after school I would ask Sebastian if he played with any of those kids that day, and he’d say he tried but that he doesn’t speak French! Just the other day, though, he said he had played with a girl during their lunchtime break. I asked what they played, and he looked sort of embarrassed, and then said “Blah Blah.” I think the gist of the game is you pretend to have a conversation, but all you say to each other is blah, blah, blah. Kind of silly and poignant at the same time. This girl now flashes him a big smile every morning.

I can tell that the language is slowly getting under their skin, though. Sebastian will ask me about words or phrases he often hears, such as “Ce n’est pas grave,” or “À toute à l’heure.” He seems proud of himself when he picks up something new. And Xavier walks around saying things like, “Thank you beaucoup, thank you beaucoup.”

After school the other day, as we were waiting for Sebastian to get out, Xavier was engaged in one of his favorite new pastimes: looking for snails and/or slugs. (There is no shortage of either here.) He was very excited when he found one, pointing and saying, “There’s a snail! There’s a snail!” In one of my moments of trying to pepper our everyday conversation with some French, I said, “C’est où ça?” (Where is it?), and he said, “Ooo sah.” I repeated, “C’est où?,” and he said, “Ooo.” It took me a moment to realize that when I said “c’est,” he of course heard “say.” It was just another reminder of the mental goulash that must be bubbling away in their heads right now.

La rentrée

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Back to school! Yesterday Sebastian began première primaire (first grade), and Xavier première maternelle (first year of preschool) at our local elementary school, École Communale Les Coccinelles–La Futaie—a day we’ve been anxiously awaiting. We all loved Sebastian’s school back in Brooklyn, and it was difficult to leave it behind. The first morning went well. Unlike in Brooklyn, where we took two subway trains every morning, we can now walk to school in less than ten minutes. When we arrived, everyone was gathering in the courtyard awaiting their new teachers. Sebastian’s teacher is young and seems very sweet. Sebastian has been brave about everything leading up to this moment, and as he walked away with his class I was filled with many different emotions—but mostly I was just very proud of him.

The younger kids then gathered in the maternelle courtyard, right next door. Xavier’s teacher also seems kind and cheerful. She speaks a little English. Xavier seemed happy to be there, and I snuck out while he was engrossed in a bin of trucks. (There may have been a few tears after I left.)

Fast forward to afternoon pickup: the crowd of parents at the courtyard gate, the excitement of hearing about the first day. Only it wasn’t exactly Sebastian who walked out, but more like a zombie who sort of resembled the fresh-faced kid I had dropped off that morning. He was holding his new friend Robert’s hand, but looked like he could barely walk. He came up to me and said, “That. Was. The. Longest. Day. Ever.” (See last photo.) I can only imagine. Good job, guys.

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