Monday, December 31, 2007
This holiday season we've walked to most of the places we've gone, or we've walked about as far as the fridge in our pj's. I've told the girls, who are surprised at sleeping in til 8am and finding that mom and dad aren't too far ahead of them, groggy downstairs with coffee and Washington Post, that this is the one week of the year you are allowed to be a lazy butt!
We were going to head up to DC and see the Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery's east wing, but the weather people were calling for rain and we just didn't feel like it. We've done lots of small get-togethers with friends and neighbors, and it feels right.
We've also traveled via the wonder of technology. Mom and Dad in Arizona got a webcam and loaded up Skype, and so did we. Today was our first video phone call. I kept thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles...it's just so crazy to think that all these George Jetson gadgets are now a reality. JieJie and MeiMei still thought it was pretty cool - they climbed into my lap and just kept saying "Gramma and Grampa! Gramma and Grampa!" like they couldn't believe their eyes.
So, looking ahead to 2008...I wish I could tell you where we're going, but I either a) don't know or b) can't tell you before we go for reasons which I will explain later. For now, "Gelukkig Nieuwjaar" (Happy New Year) and thanks for reading.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Karen (the red-head, the flirtatious one, my favorite w/her husky voice)
Kristel (the dark-haired one--she's a mom!--ever the levelheaded one)
en (that's "and" in Nederlands)
Kathleen (the Baby Spice of K3, cute, blonde, perky, slightly spastic)
Yeah, yeah, the song is not too far off from Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets" with its list of places in the world, but hey, it's appropriate for the Family Travel Journal.
And for those of you who want to learn a little Nederlands, here are the lyrics:
Feest Lyrics by K3
Is feest in New York en in St. Tropez
Barcelona en LA
Acapulco, Santa Fe
Iedereen doet mee,
't Is feest in New York en in Tokio
Kaapstad en in Mexico
Rio de Janeiro
Overal op aarde is het feest
Eskimootjes rollen in de sneeuw (Ole!)
Afrikaantjes vechten met een leeuw (Ole!)
Indianen dansen rond een totempaal
En wij gaan straks naar Spanje allemaal (Ole!)
Brazilianen zingen van La Bamba (Ole!)
Mexicanen houden dan de Samba (Ole!)
Weet je wat, we komen pas op het journaal
Als we samen feesten allemaal
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Thursday, December 20, 2007
When I travel, I love listening to the radio to immerse myself in the sounds of the language, and to hear the range of musical tastes.
So when we were in our sweet little apartment in Antwerp, instead of tuning into Armed Forces radio or BBC, I often listened to Radio2 (jingle singers...'Raaaahhhh-dee-oh Tvaaaaayyy, All-tied / dicht / by yow" actually spelled Radio Twee: Altijd dicht bij jou).
And thanks to the wonder of the internet, when I'm missing my home away from home, it's there...www.radio2.be (rah-dee-oh-tvay-punt-bay-ay). And they play a combination of music that NO AMERICAN RADIO STATION WOULD TOUCH WITH A TEN-FOOT POLE! In the past hour I've heard:
The Specials: A Message To You Rudy
Abba: Lay All Your Love on Me
Gilbert O'Sullivan: Claire
Tina Turner: Private Dancer
Udo: Isn't It Time
Garth Brooks: White Christmas
random Dutch-speaking/singing artists interspersed...
awesome new Euro-pop interspersed...
AND NOW THEY'RE PLAYING MIKA'S "LOVE TODAY"!!!
He's singing, over and over, "Love Love Me" and the retro-disco beat is pumping.
sigh. Radio 2, Ik van je hou!
Sunday, December 16, 2007
We got off the subway at 72nd and Central Park West and at first just gravitated toward the crowd right there, like plaque in a carotid artery. Almost right away we realized it might be wise to go up a block or two. Indeed, it was a bit better. We were walking toward the parade route when JieJie blurted out "Potty!" Oh, no. I told John I would take her, and of course MeiMei wanted to go too, so instead of waiting for the parade, the three of us wound up walking in the opposite direction, trying to find a merciful shop owner who would let us use the bathroom.
You need to know something about Starbucks Coffee. They are pretty lax about letting non-customers use their bathrooms in most of New York City. I guess they figure the majority of people who are able to will buy at least a cup of coffee...so is it generous or mercenary of them to share their facilities? Anyway, even though there was a Starbucks right on that very corner, the line was so long we wouldn't have gotten JieJie in there in time. I headed for a Korean grocery across the street, figuring even if they didn't let us use the bathroom, we could get food, since the girls hadn't had breakfast yet either (such a great mom am I, let me tell ya). But they said "no bathroom." I'm going COME ON, where do YOU go when nature calls? But I thought ok, we'll keep looking. NOTHING was open (except the aforementioned Starbucks) so finally I went back to the little grocery and looked around for a small door of some kind. Indeed, there was a tiny, Alice-in-Wonderland door by the freezer case. A grandmotherly woman came around the corner who looked like she worked there, and I said "can she please use the bathroom? She really has to go." The grandmotherly woman showed JieJie the way in...sweet relief! So we took our bag of snacks and went back to the parade route.
The parade itself was really short, compared to the three-hour yakathon you're used to seeing on tv. The balloons don't look as big, the Broadway and tv and flavor-of-the-month stars either go by too fast to see or don't deign to ride in the parade, just waiting at the Herald Square site for their big moment. Still, I'm a people-watcher and I was not disappointed. One balloon came by, for some Disney show, and JieJie said really loudly "Look! It's the girl from that show we don't watch anymore!" and everyone around us laughed. Then a Pierrot doll balloon came by and some other guy said "Look! It's that balloon that people used to be able to identify, but now it's just kind of creepy!"But the best moment by far was when this random guy just started saying "Excuse me...pardon me...can I get through...Excuse me..." and everyone around me parted to allow this soft-spoken twentysomething man in coveralls to walk right past us. He got all the way to the front row! Those of us who instinctively moved aside looked at one another and immediately just went "WAIT A SECOND...Why didn't WE think of that?!" Incredulity. Oh well, sometimes the most devious plan is the most obvious.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Settle in - much to say.
Back in 2002 on our first adoption trip, we got to know Jeff & Tina H., a couple adopting through the same agency. If you're unfamiliar with the way China adoptions go, usually when you travel to China to complete the adoption, you are part of a group of families from your agency, all being processed the same time. Jeff & Tina were in our group and what we went through together, being in the Civil Affairs office together and experiencing the same thing at the same time has glued our families together. They are in our videos and photos of the trip, and we are in theirs, and we are part of each others' stories. Of course, we shared the experience with other families in our group too, but all of the other families are either somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (near our agency's offices) or scattered elsewhere. One dad, Greg, is on a tour of duty in Iraq, and we all hope and pray for his safe return to his three daughters and wife Cheryl. Other parents in our group, pre-adoption, were adversaries in a legal situation (one representing the plaintiff, the other the defendant, in a government case) and now are able to put differences aside because of what we've all gone through together. Adoption is amazing that way.
Anyway, every November, we get together with the H family to celebrate the anniversary of that 2002 adoption trip. So far we've been to Mt. Airy, NC (the "real" Mayberry with lots of Andy Griffith stuff), they've come to Harrisonburg, we've gone to South Carolina, and last year we went to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, TN. For the fifth anniversary we wanted to do something big, so we decided on the Big Apple. They'd never been--bonus! It's so much fun to take people to NYC for their first time, and I'm happy to report that the city definitely cooperated, and we had a great experience.
They came up late Tuesday night before Thanksgiving and slept over. After a quick breakfast Wednesday morning, we hit the road. It was pretty smooth sailing until we got within shouting distance of New Jersey. The interchange between 81 and 78 was closed due to an accident, so what should've been a 6-7 hour trip turned into 10-11 hours. Ugh! I didn't mind though, because Tina and the girls and I were in one car and Chris, Jeff, and Jeff's son were in the other car, so we had lots of time to catch up and talk about the different things we could do in NYC.
We got to the Mariott Brooklyn Bridge no problem. Drove through the Holland Tunnel, across lower Manhattan, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and the hotel was super easy to find. We settled into our rooms (Jeff's company has a deal w/Marriott, so the rooms were only $100/night!!!) and decided to go out for Pizza. The good restaurant street near the hotel was Montague Street, and we found Monty Q's, an honest-to-goodness New York pizza joint. It was wonderful pizza. The Italian sausage was just out of this world. We went back to the hotel and rested up for the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED...Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, photo gallery, and much more!!
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
We're both keeping our eyes on VW (about to be bought out by Porsche?) because they have been threatening to put out a new Microbus for several years now, and also because the '08 diesel models are starting to come out. Diesel is now lower in cost than regular, and they can make engines that burn cleaner & get better mileage.
That's all for now,
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
We are the car buying equivalent of picky eaters.
I went to try the Town & Country and it was fine. Handled well, nice pickup and smooth braking. Plenty of room, and I like the stow 'n go seating. In order for MeiMei to be comfortable in her booster, I had to remove the headrest from her bucket seat in the second row, no biggie. I like the power side doors and power liftgate. I felt like Magic Mommy when I pushed that door button and MeiMei lit up like we were in on a magical secret together.
But there were these little nagging things. When I pulled out the cup holder, it just felt cheap and didn't move very well. I had to kind of bang it to get it to go back in. Then, when I was going over 55mph, there was a tiny little tap-tap-tap sound from what seemed like the front axle area. But I thought well, I'm probably hearing things or making too much of what I am hearing.
We picked John up at work, and he dropped us off at home so we could go get JieJie from kindergarten, and he drove it back to the dealership. Before he dropped me off, I noticed that the armrest on the left side of my passenger seat was vibrating madly, buzzing. Hunh? He noticed the same little tap sound. He liked the same things I liked and we both agreed that it was comfortable to drive, and roomy.
We weren't in love with it. He remembered buying the Camry back in 2000 and thinking that it was the perfect car for us at that time, as well as being a really good deal on a good car. Since we're not in a hurry, we've realized we're both waiting to feel that feeling again, whichever car we end up with. So we're going to let this van go.
I still say renting a car for the next long trip may be the most economical option. Beats a car payment!
Monday, October 01, 2007
John went Saturday morning to test drive the Town and Country, but it wasn't unloaded from the truck yet, so he's going tomorrow morning after he drops MeiMei off at preschool.
All this time I've been resisting the minivan option...maybe it's all those times when I've driven to a playground or school or kid-friendly event and felt like I was intruding on the Minivan Army with my Camry. Maybe that's why I liked the Pacifica...it was van-esque, but a little different.
But maybe a van is really the best thing for us right now. If the price is right (20K miles on it, it's an '06 just coming off a lease program, list price is $19,988 but perhaps we can go even a bit lower?) who knows? I may have a new photo to post later this week.
We'd likely hang onto the Camry, since it runs well and is paid off.
A minivan? Again?! Ok, so I'm reminded of the day I went shopping for a wedding dress and kept trying on all these white cocktail and prom type dresses, but nothing was quite right. Finally the saleslady looked me in the eye and said, gently, "dear...you're getting married. That's why none of these dresses is quite right. Shall I show you the WEDDING DRESSES now?"
I can hear her now: Dear, you're a mom with two kids. Shall I show you the MINIVANS now?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
It was like this: a few days ago, I mentioned that I would like to try to find a Thursday flight for a long weekend visiting my family in Minneapolis. John teaches Thursdays and could only drive me at certain times of day, or I could find another ride somehow.
We only have one car, because of our recent travels.
Long story short, rather than let our '92 hand-me-down Plymouth Voyager sit in the driveway for five months, hoping against hope that it would start when we returned from Antwerp, we sold it to our friend Farmer H, who raises chickens on a farm north of Harrisonburg. Delicious chickens, by the way. Real chickens, like Auntie Em raised in Kansas.
So we were down to the Camry, which was a surprise 30th birthday present back in...well, let's just say several years ago. It runs great and I love zipping around in it, love the manual transmission. For long trips though, it stinks! The girls are growing like weeds--sorry, like beautiful precious flowers--and when they don't want to be in the car, the easiest way to let us know is to kick the back of our seats. Since there's no legroom in the back, it's getting harder and harder to ignore the thumping. That, and the sore butts, hips and back we get from the front seats, which are just not very comfortable anymore, if they ever really were.
Fast forward to this week. "How can I get to the airport" turned into "this is a GREAT time of year to buy a car!"
I got all excited because I've never actually chosen my own wheels before. If it were just me, and money were no object, I'd already have the red Mini Cooper with white racing stripes and checkerboard rearview mirrors sitting in the driveway, with matching mini-Minis for the girls to scoot up and down the block. And John would get his Jaguar or Cadillac or whatever.
But it's not just me, and money most definitely IS an object. Why spend any more than you have to, after all?
We've been all over the web in the past few days. Edmunds.com, CarsDirect.com, Autotrader.com, Cars.com, and ConsumerReports.com were some of the most visited. I particularly appreciated the advice on CarTalk.com, which features a flowchart questionnaire designed to come up with the cars you should consider based on the things most important to you.
Since this car is to be the tour-mobile for all the trips we look forward to taking, there were three major considerations: seat comfort, spaciousness (rear seat legroom!) and fuel economy. CarTalk.com's little questionnaire spit out five models: the Hyundai SantaFe, the Chrysler Pacifica (one I've had my eye on), Mazda5 (another one I like the looks of), the new Ford Taurus, and the Ford Edge, a new CRV-style model that just came out.
We'd had a Taurus before and liked the ride quality, but it had this disturbing tendency for the entire dash assembly to shudder above 65mph. I come from a Chrysler family (and you thought we were German/Scandinavian) so the Pacifica was on my radar. Not as frumpy as a van, I thought. As for the Santa Fe, I really don't like all these roller-skate-like designs that are out there, but trying to keep an open mind. Never thought of Hyundai.
Monday, I picked MeiMei up from school and drove out to Myers Ford in Elkton for a test drive of one of the '07 Ford Five Hundreds they're trying to get rid of. It was deja vu all over again...floaty handling, shuddering as I put the brakes on, very underpowered and very frustrating. I didn't like it at all. John suggested I go back and try one of the Limited editions, since I just drove one of the base models.
Tuesday, I dropped the girls off at school and went straight to the Chrysler dealership on Route 11. Nice salesman, low pressure, and soon I was zooming down I-81 in a red Pacifica. It was so much fun to drive, I was singing out loud to the great stereo system. I picked John up from work and took him to breakfast. He didn't like the Pacifica. But the power liftgate! I said. Nah, seats not that comfortable, he said. But it's so cool! But it's so expensive, he said. For that kind of money, we could get something better, he's right.
Hyundai SantaFe: didn't even want to test drive it. Salesman, so young he's probably still using Clearasil, was naming every part of the car he could point to, apparently to make it seem more "loaded." But come on..."this is the leather strap for pulling the liftgate down" is a little much. Especially just having used Pacifica's power liftgate button on the key fob. And then, as he described the safety features of the Santa Fe, screeeeeeccchhhhh....BAMBAM! About 100 yards away on Route 11, a Land Rover had run into some kind of sedan. It was a bad looking accident, the front corners of both cars absolutely smushed, but the drivers got out and seemed ok. Still, though I tend not to be superstitious, if that ain't an omen, I don't know what is.
Went to have lunch with JieJie, who is still having a tough adjustment to kindergarten. There's a lot going on in such a big school, and the cafeteria is really chaotic, especially compared to the orderly lunch room in their Antwerp school. In a way I'm sad that she has to get used to all the noise, but we're not in Belgium anymore... it was so quiet there!
After lunch, I went back to Myers Ford to drive the Ford Five Hundred Limited. It was much nicer, both in the gadgets included in the dash/console and in the drive/handling. There was no shimmy, no floaty feel. I was not in love, but it would be an acceptable car. But then I'm sitting there going Man, $400 a month is too much for an "acceptable" car! I want to be in love with that next car. Cadillac had a great slogan on the commercial I just saw for their new CTS: "When I turn my car on, I want it to return the favor." Yeah, baby!
So that night we went full circle and came to the conclusion that if we need a car for a long trip, we'd save a lot of money just by renting it for 2 weeks, instead of the monthly payment, the increased insurance, increased personal property taxes (Virginia...sheesh), all for a pretty car that's going to spend way too much time in the driveway. Matter closed.
The next day, John confessed to visiting the Cadillac dealership to look at the CTS. Too expensive, though nice. As for me, I snuck over to the Nissan dealer to peek at Maximas. They're so pretty! And I have to say I'm a sucker for high-tech goo-gahs, from navigation systems to Bose stereos to an engine that actually learns your driving habits so it can perform more efficiently...Come to Mama! And they said they can go to auctions and get program cars just coming off of a one-year lease, saving the potential Maxima owner thousands of dollars for basically a new car.
Brought Maxima brochure home, shared with hubby. Opened new can of worms. What about the Toyota Avalon? he said. It seems the obvious choice, since he's as much a Toyota man as my dad is a Chrysler man. Since we already have a Camry, maybe we could get a good trade-in and stay with one car, just a larger one that fits us better AND works for long trips. Hmmmm...
No, we haven't test-driven it yet. Stay tuned. I'm reminded of the man who sets his hat down at the haberdasher's, tries everything on and ends up so confused he tries to buy his own hat. Put your money on the 2000 Camry. It's paid in full.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Fares look best from Newark to Brussels on 12/27, and then we'd fly back probably January 3rd, and the girls would go back to school the next Monday. They will miss a couple of days of school, but we think it's worth it.
Hoping to see friends we met through the girls' school, also Mr. K and his wife (of course) and we can visit friends in The Netherlands, also perhaps do an overnight (Cologne?).
Friday, September 07, 2007
Remember the "Flemish PTA Rave Party"? Well, here's a photo from that amazingly memorable night (search past posts for February 2007). If you know me, you know which one is me. Also featured in this photo are my friend "IV" and her husband "SB" and also the head of the girls' Antwerp school, Mevrouw H. The party was at a cool riverfront catering facility in Antwerp called...er...Barcelona. Yup.
Friday, August 31, 2007
School started, and JieJie loves her teacher. MeiMei is in love with JieJie's school and wants to be a kindergartener now, not next year, but we tell her she has to wait just a little longer. JMU started, so now John and I have classes and students and grading and meetings and all of that stuff. This is the routine we took a break from last spring semester, and it somehow feels right to jump back in. We're ready. We were all ready two weeks ago.
It's time to stay put for a while.
But we're batting around the idea of--can it be?--Antwerp over Christmas break.
I'll keep ya posted.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
If you've driven into both New York City and Washington DC, you're struck by how different the two experiences are. To get into New York, it's such a production, whether you take bridges or tunnels. All the lanes merging, all the nosing in front of other people (it's nose or be nosed) and then even when you get onto Manhattan, it's not like you're seeing anything famous.
DC is so different! The interstate BECOMES Constitution Avenue, and immediately on your right is the Lincoln Memorial. Before you know it you're driving past the National Mall, the White House, The Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, the National Archives, Commerce Department, with a view of the Capitol in the distance.
I love visiting DC. It's a really pretty town, and the height restrictions on buildings there have kept the built environment at a human scale. I worked in DC in the 1990's, first interning at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, then later getting a master's degree from The George Washington University (don't forget the The or the alumni association will get you). During my master's study, I met a really interesting woman, R., who does museum exhibit evaluation. I was a data collector for her for a bunch of projects, which meant that I got paid to hang out in museums and ask people questions about things like storms and spiders and American Indian artifacts. Finally, I worked as an Arts Administration Fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts, back when Jane Alexander was in charge. The NEA offices are in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from where I parked today. I love knowing my way around--for the uninitiated, DC can be a really confusing place to drive!
I took Metro to an appointment in Bethesda, MD, a schizophrenic suburb of DC which used to be a nice little city, you can tell, but these days the old main street is dwarfed by 12-story office blocks. I used to work there too, and even 15 years ago I thought Bethesda was all mixed up.
And Metro...it's a system that is showing its age. Half the announcements were about elevators out of service, line delays, and rather scolding-sounding warnings to Stay Away from the Doors!
Ah well. Dinner with M near Woolly Mammoth was great, though too short of course. And when I was killing time at the nearby Olssons Books & Records cafe, in walked Michael Kahn, head of the Shakespeare Theatre, so that was my Famous Person sighting for the day.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
I had the great luck to correspond with an adoptive mom in Brooklyn, NY who was willing to give me the lowdown on what to do in Chinatown, where to eat, etc. and here's what she shared with me:
Jing Fong: For a more traditional dim sum experience, in a HUGE dining room. On Elizabeth Street. Get there by 11 AM or expect to wait (though it moves quickly)
Dim Sum Go-Go: For great dim-sum that you order from a long list rather than from carts. Big variety, many vegetarian options. Restaurant has a more modern ambience. On East Broadway near Confucious Square.
Joe's Shanghai: For dinner. Famous for the soup dumplings. Go early or wait outside. On Bayard, I believe.
XO: Kind of a hole in the wall, but great congee and stellar har gao (crystal shrimp dumplings)
We've also had dim sum at Ping, Pearl, Triple 8 Palace and Golden Unicorn, all of which were quite good and I'm sure a non-dim sum meal would be good at any of these places as well. They are all well-known in Chinatown.
There are restaurants all up and down Mott, which is one of the main arteries of Chinatown. Often people refer to them by their address number (75 Mott or 25 Mott) and everyone has their favorites. Just ask around.
For dessert, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard can't be beat. Their longon and lychee sorbets are fabulous. For traditional buns and pastries, Fay Da Bakery on Mott near Canal is great--we get our mooncakes there. A few doors down is a traditional tea shop and Aji Iciban, a Japanese snack shop that sells everything from candy to fermented sweet potato, and they have samples of everything. Every place I've mentioned is near the main commercial part of Chinatown.
Columbus park is a great playground/park, where you can see old-timers playing Go and Mah-jong and sometimes playing instruments. The other playground is at Seward Park, which is further east. Any Chinatown map will help you locate any of these places.
Brooklyn:Smith Street is filled with restaurants of every type, except Chinese (well, there's one, Chance, but it's not great for kids). We like Ki and Hana for sushi, but there are several new sushi places we haven't tried yet. Fa'an is pan-Asian and the decor is fun for kids. The food is fine, not outstanding, but also very cheap. Any of the French restaurants are good, and even the fancier ones are used to lots of kids. Same goes for Thai. Gravy is a fun diner, and the attached pizza place is supposed to be great (I'm not a pizza fan). There's a new branch of the Manhattan Italian restaurant Po on Smith now, and it's very pricey, but supposed to be great. Any of the old-timey looking Italian places are good too, just very traditional. On Court Street, parallel to Smith, Joya is great, cheap Thai (but the music can get very loud). Osaka is good sushi, and Sal's is good pizza. Way down Court Street near 4th place is Frankie's Sputino, which is excellent modern Italian food, and a pretty famous restaurant in the neighborhood (Leonardo DiCaprio apparently hangs out there when he's in town--though I've never seen him there). It's a very trendy place, but they're happy to serve kids. Everyone in Brownstone Brooklyn has kids, so they're everywhere :)
So there you have it! A few places to eat and people-watch in the Big Red Apple :)
Thursday, July 26, 2007
And we actually have been doing things differently since coming home. Things like...
- not using the clothes dryer. We bought a drying rack, put up some clothesline on our screened porch, and we let the summer breeze work its magic. The girls LOVE to help hang up and take down clothes, they smell fresher (the clothes, not necessarily the girls!), the upstairs laundry room doesn't heat up so much, and we have noticed a MAJOR difference in our electric bill. Usually the bill in the summertime is over $120, but last month it was $85.
- recycling more kinds of things. The city doesn't take paperboard (cereal boxes) but I found a place locally that does. We are also looking into getting a composter to get the kitchen waste out of the landfill.
- using fewer lights. We replaced many of our bulbs with the compact fluorescent kind, and have been careful to turn off lights in rooms we're not using. In many buildings in Europe, lights in common areas of buildings have automatic shutoff timers that turn lights off after, say, 10 minutes. The stairwell in our apartment building had those, and it really makes so much sense. In order for those to be used everywhere though, there has to be trust in a certain level of safety, so people aren't worried about what happens in the few seconds between the light shutting off and someone finding the turn-it-back-on switch. Would Americans feel safe enough?
- Saving more water. We had a toilet that was leaking / running anyway, so when we replaced it, we found a dual-mode flush model from http://www.faucetdepot.com/ that looks a lot like the ones we saw all over Europe. The button on the top has two sections, one smaller than the other. If you push the smaller button, you get a .9 gallon flush, which is enough for most...er...jobs. If you need a little extra oomph in the flush, you push the larger button and you get a 1.6 gallon flush. The way it's designed (ours is by a company called Toto) the flush works just fine and isn't "wimpy" at all like some low-flow models. And compared to the old 3-gallon water guzzling commode we had, we are saving some serious water!!! We noticed that in a household of four people, we had the same water usage after installing that toilet that we had when our solitary renter was here!!!! And again, lower bill: was $47, now $39.
And now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you don't even need to go to Europe to lower your utility bills and save resources. Just jump straight from reading this article to taking your own conservation measures.
Friday, July 20, 2007
We're not even on a trip and people keep checking in, so I thought I would give you some more to look at until our next travel adventure. The main addition, thanks to Blogger's newsreel feature, has links to news from Chongqing, which is where JieJie and MeiMei were born. Check out the headlines to the right of this post. Right now they are having some really horrendous storms there, worst in over 100 years, and the impact has been devastating. Lives, homes, and crops have been lost to the rain and lightning.
I will let you know if I hear any news from the girls' home towns of Fuling and Liangping, which are both in Chongqing Municipality.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Tonight my friend H had invited me and the girls to see a story teller at the Museum of Frontier Culture in Staunton, Virginia, which is about a half-hour south of Harrisonburg. We picked her up at 6 and took Route 42 through winding countryside, mountain vistas in the distance, cut over to Route 11 (the old Valley Pike) and then down to the museum, which is fairly young as museums go.
This living history museum features an Appalachian homestead farm as well as a few other farm buildings literally taken apart in Europe and put back together in the Valley to show the kinds of farms whose architecture and agricultural practices influenced Valley settlers. It's popular with public schools for field trips. We've been to a wedding there in the octagonal barn. It was a lovely evening to be sure and one of two weddings we've been to with reception music provided by the incredible Hackensaw Boys. I was going to, but now realize I don't want to talk about the storyteller we saw tonight, who was absolutely respectable, or the fact that I spent the whole second story watching JieJie and MeiMei attempt really painful looking cartwheels behind the storytelling shed. As soon as I got that Hackensaw music rolling in my head, it reminded me of so many things...Never heard of 'em? Sit back.
In fact, to really get the most out of what I'm about to write, open another browser window, go to http://www.hackensawboys.com/ and play the concert footage from Amsterdam that's on there now. I don't think they play many weddings anymore...they're at the Knitting Factory in NYC and the enormous Floyd Fest in southside Virginia this month, and they're from here.
Now let's get one thing straight. I do NOT like most country music. I love Johnny Cash (thanks Dad) and during the Urban Cowboy era I liked stuff like Eddie Rabbitt and the Oak Ridge Boys, and John Denver's music always makes me smile, but most of today's country-pop leaves me cold. I like what I guess is called "roots country" like Alison Krauss and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, stuff like that. Living in Virginia has made me appreciate roots / bluegrass so much, and despise the stuffed-cowboy-hat stuff even more.
But see, the Hackensaws and Dominion Express are NOT country music. They play Bluegrass, or more correctly for this area, "Old Time" music. A friend of mine who has played both styles tried to describe the difference between bluegrass and old-time. He said Bluegrass is more like jazz, where the group plays in unison for the first verse to state the theme of the song, and then each instrumentalist takes a solo turn with laid-back support from the rest of the group, then everyone gets together for the wind-up. With Old-Time, though, he said everyone plays full-out the whole time, and it can be physically grueling to keep up. check out some of the tempos in the Hackensaw clips!!
The other thing that's amazing about the Hackensaws...well just look at the footage of their concert. Is it 2007 or 1937?? You half expect Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, or a young Bob Dylan to come strolling in. Look at the pork pie hats, the flannel shirts...how skinny they all are, like they've been working all day at the CCC camp...and my goodness the instruments! Accordions, washboards, mandolins and banjos, stand-up bass violins plucked hard. Do they blow into a jug? I didn't see one, but I'd put money on it.
Along with Old-Time music goes Contra Dancing, or square dancing with two long lines (Virginia Reel for example). You can try it the second Saturday of every month at the Dayton Learning Center, a former high school in the little country town of Dayton, VA (never mind the aroma...it's the chicken and turkey processing plant. Hope the wind blows the right way and you'll be fine). Show up at 7:15 for a Contra Dance lesson, and the actually dance begins at 8, always with live music. It's a bargain at $5. If you're looking for a Harrisonburg-area old-time ensemble for a wedding or party, try contacting Steve Parks http://www.steveparksmusic.com/music.html who is an anchor of the local scene.
And sooner or later, if you live around here, you'll get invited "out to the county" to someone's giant piece of land where they have a year's worth of wood, paper, and God knows what-all that's set up in a huge bonfire. About 1 in the morning, when the bonfire is no longer eyebrow-singing temperature, the guitars and mandolins come out and you find yourself singing "Goodnight Irene."
So that's a bit of what there is to do 'round these parts.
But I swear we're feeling like we've done it all...restless...
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Perhaps we should open the blog up for suggestions. I would say the three main criteria are
- there must be a body of water involved, salt or fresh doesn't matter.
- can't be expensive. Don't send us to the Greenbrier.
- fun stuff for the kiddies = fun time for the parents
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
As we sat listening to Murray's enjoyable singing and guitar playing, a couple across from us asked whether we were from here. They were staying the night in Harrisonburg on their way from Florida to the eastern shore of Maryland, retirees taking the scenic route through the certainly scenic Shenandoah Valley. They wanted to know what there was to do in Harrisonburg the next morning before they headed toward Fredericksburg/I-95.
What about the farmer's market they saw on I-81? They wanted to know. You mean the Shenandoah Heritage Farmer's Market? Yes, she said. Blecch, I said. Unless you're looking for guns or overpriced biscuit mix, skip it. It's hard to describe exactly what's wrong with that place. Maybe the building is too big for what they have there. It feels empty and depressing. Much much better is the Dayton Farmer's Market on Route 42. But the next day was Sunday, and Dayton Farmer's Market is only open Thursday-Saturday.
We racked our brains trying to think of any reason to stay in Harrisonburg beyond breakfast at the hotel...
Isn't that sad??? Maybe we've just lived here too long, but the first thing that came to mind was what they could do once they got in their car and left. We ended up recommending that they drive Route 33 east over the mountains (passing through Shenandoah National Park on the way) and then continue across Route 29 to a section of 33 that goes through some beautiful historic farmland, then tour Montpelier, James Madison's home.
...and we couldn't think of a single
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Friday, June 08, 2007
- Skipping takeout food. Do you realize how much waste we generate from the "need" to eat food while we go from place to place? Think of the paper and styrofoam and plastic used by one fast food place for one day. If you to to Starbucks (which I never saw the whole time we were in Europe by the way) and order your coffee to go rather than "for here" in a ceramic mug, it seems like no big deal, but multiply that choice by the number of customers, and it's a mountain of trash. If you don't have time to sit down and have that snack or meal, either you don't need it or--just perhaps--your life is too complicated.
- Using a clothesline. In Estepona, our clothes dried much faster on the line than in the dryer anyway because the sun is so hot and bright there! I couldn't stand using the dryer when the sun was shining here, so I strung up a makeshift clothesline on the back porch as a placeholder. We'll probably put in a permanent clothesline out in the sunny part of our yard later this month.
- much more conscious of turning electrical appliances off when not in use, even to the point that we unplug the coffee maker, since we don't really need a third clock in the kitchen. When I walk away from the computer, I don't leave the speakers, printer and screen on.
- installing water conservation devices around the house. In Estepona, there are often water shortages, to the point that we were encouraged to water plants with waste water from cooking, rather than putting it down the drain. We will be replacing an old high-capacity toilet tank with the dual-flush type that is ubiquitous in Europe. The design allows you to use a small flush for pee and a more powerful flush for the other stuff. Why haven't we been using this kind of thing all along? They're not impossible to find here either, if you were looking for a convenient excuse. Your local home supply store can order one for you. I found ours on the web with free shipping. The brand is "Toto." The other thing we're likely to do is put in at least one rain barrel to catch gutter runoff for use in gardening and cleaning. I read that the average suburban house catches 24,000 gallons a year!!! Perhaps we should be putting some of that to use. Funny thing is, our 100-year-old house seems to have had a cistern and pump at one point, but all that's left are some terra cotta pipes near the gutters and a pump mechanism with no handle. Wish they'd left it alone instead of making "improvements," whoever's decision that was.
- eating "greener." We're lucky to have a farmer's market twice a week right down the street where we can buy locally grown produce. It stays so much fresher and tastes so much better. In Europe we paid a bit more for our groceries but everything was so much closer to the source, whether it was bread, meats, cheeses, even chocolate. We look at labels much more carefully, and if something has a bunch of high fructose partially hydrogenated crapola in it, it stays on the shelf.
- driving about as much as we did before. On this score, I have to say we have been doing better than most, because we live a 3-minute bicycle commute from work (even closer to the Family Travel Journal World Headquarters, ha). Once MeiMei finishes preschool, they'll both walk up the street to their elementary school, so we won't need to drive much of anywhere except the grocery store.
- composting. The city of Antwerp has everyone separate out biodegradable food waste, partly because the plumbing system wouldn't be able to handle a bunch of disposals pureeing food waste and putting it directly into the wastewater pipes. I would like to find one of those barrel things that you turn with a crank every once in a while.
- reining in spending on home decorating. Look at HGTV and you realize that America has given itself a House Fetish. People are tearing out perfectly good rooms because the stove is suddenly not trendy anymore or the light fixtures are just all wrong. Where does all that waste go? In Belgium, since it's far more common to entertain friends out at a restaurant than to invite them to your home, nobody needs to have a house with all kinds of room to show off a few times a year at a party. You just need a place to live everyday family life. We enjoy our house here, but have realized how much we spend on pretty frivolous things. I'm having a yard sale on Saturday to de-clutter a bit.
So I challenge you...will it take a trip out of the country to get you thinking about ways you could waste not and want not? Or at least waste less and want less?
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
I'm glad for email, but it's such a tease. It makes us seem so close, and then we realize that we are so far away. I just have to believe we will see one another again. That school is so fantastic, I wish the commute weren't so impossible.
The girls went to the last day of their old preschool today. They were invited to the last day of school party and they had a fantastic time running through sprinklers and getting their faces painted. Their teacher here said it was as though they had never left, though she noted that both of them seem much more confident and intrepid, which I absolutely credit to our semester abroad.
If I'd known the school in Antwerp was going to be so incredible, I'd have arranged to stay and let them finish out the year somehow, I think.
Monday, June 04, 2007
Give it a try!
And by the way, you would never believe how much more internet is out there beyond the .com's and the .org's--every European country has its own suffix, and there are hundreds of thousands of webpages you'll never find if your Google is set only to English language sites.
Gotta love the internet.
Saturday, June 02, 2007
Second, I got an interesting insight from a neighbor last night, who told me that the difference in the girls before and after our trip was startling, that they are so much more outgoing now, that they seem so much more comfortable talking with her than they used to. I see more confidence in their approach to new situations and people, but it was nice to get independent confirmation.
I think it's going to take me much of the summer to come down from the winter and spring. Inevitably, I compare the way we do things in the U.S. with the way things were done in Antwerp, and right now Antwerp is winning in many categories, though not all. In order to stay focused (difficult to do these days), I'll limit discussion to one topic at a time.
Perhaps because I'm writing a guide for families who do the JMU Antwerp program in the future, I'm thinking most right now about parents and children, and how things are for them here and there. Take school, for instance. We had the tiniest peek into the school system in Antwerp. We got to see the fundamentals of how the school is run, got to know other parents and children, and observed how teachers and students relate to one another, their assumptions, their demeanor, the rules. There was formality and order, there were uniforms and straight lines, yet there was love. The teachers instilled self confidence in the children through high expectations and consistent strict discipline. I will always remember the day when I stopped by the school during the day to drop something off and saw JieJie (she didn't see me) running gleefully from her classroom to the recycling bins with a basket of paper. How important she felt to have a job to do! I often tell the story of the day we came late and found JieJie's class in a different room--it was so quiet behind the closed door that I didn't believe there could be 40 preschoolers in there, but there they sat, still, hands folded, paying attention. Then there was the day when MeiMei had a little accident in class, so unusual for her, and coped with the embarrassment by sticking her tongue out at her teacher...she got in a heap of trouble, as well she should have, but the next day she apologized and her teacher welcomed her with open arms and it was clear that the lesson of forgiveness had been attended to. The day to day communication between teachers and students was not all huggy-huggy and self-esteemy, but when we left that last day, the teachers (both of whom are also moms) lifted the girls in the air, hugged and kissed them and cried that we were leaving. When there is a foundation of love in a school, the formality isn't cold at all. It feels more like giving each child a kind of dignity in the endeavor of learning. I really grew to like that, and I miss it.
Contrast that with Kindergarten Orientation for JieJie this past week. First, let me say that we are certainly happy with the school. But it is part of a larger system (nationally, not busting on Harrisonburg at all) that has some really messed up stuff going on, almost as though it has reformed and assessed itself so many times it has lost its connection to the original idea--and I say this as someone who studied toward teaching certification as an undergraduate, and studied the history of the American educational system in grad school.
We walked into the school, and JieJie was beaming with excitement. First of all she had us all to herself, since MeiMei was playing at a neighbor's. Then she saw that they had a name tag with her name and picture on it, a nice touch that says "we know you and this is your place." Then when we took our seats in the cafeteria, her little friend Sara (funny that there's a Sara on this end too) ran over and hugged her, saying "I missed you so much!" and normally reserved JieJie said "I missed you too Sara." It would be so sweet if they end up in the same class. I looked around at the diverse crowd (Harrisonburg's school district goes back and forth with Arlington near DC for the title of most ethnically diverse school district in Virginia) and then the principal introduced the translators who were able to assist parents who speak Spanish or Kurdish. There was a positive feel in the room.
But then...the principal didn't wait for quiet before she began speaking. COME ON! I'm thinking, this is her first opportunity to set a tone, and she's talking while scattered groups of people in the room are still talking--and it wasn't just the murmuring of translators. Oh well, I think, it's different here, and we'll all get the information. Then she talked a lot to the kids about having fun and making friends, learning new things (yay) and about lunch. Then she spent the remainder of her time going over the security protocol for the school, so that no unauthorized people are able to come in and endanger the children. In Antwerp, the front door was locked all day and if you wanted to get in, you rang the doorbell, which would be answered either by the principal or the secretary, both of whom knew who belonged in the building and who didn't, 'nuff said. I know, I know, fire codes and practicality. We couldn't just lock the door.
So okay, we go to the rooms where the kids got a chance to see the classrooms they might be assigned to. In the first room, one of the teachers read a story. Several boys in the front row snickered after every sentence, though the teacher ultimately made eye contact with them and they got the message. Then another teacher presented a coloring activity where each child was supposed to color a person-shaped cutout. Great - JieJie loves coloring, especially in restaurants (ha) but then the American detail emerged: each person would be decorated with a sticker that said "I AM SPECIAL." Is it me, or do kids see right through that stuff after a while?
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I was in the first generation of kids who were smothered with self-esteem language, which in a way starts to give people the idea that we are all just so fragile that we need to be told that we're special every day...it becomes empty words. I was born in 1970, grew up on Sesame Street, and when we moved to Edina, Minnesota from our (in my memory) more down-to-earth neighborhood in South Minneapolis, I had quite a surprise. One day a teacher I didn't know showed up in my classroom and wrote on the board Project ChARLiE, which stood for Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies in Education. She had all of us wear these signs made of cardstock and tied around us with yarn that said IALAC, which we were told stood for "I Am Lovable And Capable." I remember thinking about some of the other kids in the class and wondering why they were allowed to wear the signs (what a weird kid I must have been), because I had certainly experienced their most unloving behavior!
But back to kindergarten orientation. We finished in the first room and went into the next room where the kids were going to do a science activity, planting a pumpkin seed (which JieJie is watching over vigilantly and watering almost too much, hoping to see a sprout). I liked that activity because, since they chose a pumpkin seed, I bet you some of the kids are actually going to be able to bring in a pumpkin this fall that they grew themselves. JieJie has already decided she wants to make hers into a pumpkin pie.
So all in all, it was a successful night, but one that certainly pointed up the differences between Here and There. Oh--and did I mention that the principal at JieJie's new school does a "stunt" at the end of every year? Last year the students voted that she should spend the day on the roof. This year she will spend a day on roller blades. Harmless fun, you say. And I'm probably just being cranky. But Juv. ("Yuf", meaning Ms.) Hilde from the girls' school in Antwerp would never.
Monday, May 28, 2007
It was a good visit, and the Amethyst Motel worked beautifully. It's two blocks from the boardwalk. Rooms are clean and quiet. There is a pool in a center courtyard somewhat protected from the chilly winds. JieJie and MeiMei spent quite a bit of time in that pool, and where JieJie used to sort of float-hop while moving her arms in swim-esque ways, she actually seems to be swimming underwater now--exciting to think where she'll be with that by the end of the summer. I was also pleased to see that her little sister, who wants so much to do everything her big sister can do, displayed basic common sense and limited herself to the pool's steps instead of insisting that she was tall enough for the 3-feet deep (both girls often think the numbers are for age, not depth..."I'm 3! I can go there!!").
We didn't do many earthshattering things at the Jersey Shore, just the usual. We played skee-ball and some other arcade games, and I got lucky on one game of chance, winning enough tickets (325 points!) to get the girls something beyond the usual bamboo finger trap and plastic ring. We ate at Brielle Omelet, which has to be the best breakfast place in America bar none. We also ate dinner at the Shrimp Box, which has a nice view of the Manasquan River. Food was nothing to write home about, but then we are SO spoiled.
When we got home, I said a silent prayer of thanks that we are not going much of anywhere until maybe August. We're not sure where we're going yet, but we are strongly considering returning to Peaks Island, Maine, which is one of the resort islands in Casco Bay / Portland area. Peaks Island is great because once you're out on the island the pace is very slow, walking or biking...there's a restaurant or two, and a little grocery for necessities, a family beach for playing and swimming, and the rental cottages are quite reasonable. If you crave city activities, you just take the ferry to Portland for some of the best shopping anywhere. There's Portland Green Grocer, the Whip and Spoon kitchen store, Foreside Company catalogue outlet, and a whole indoor shopping pavilion that reminds me of Quincy Market in Boston.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
You know that scene in the movie "Poltergeist" where they get the little girl back from the underworld and she and her mom fall out of the ceiling and land on the living room floor covered in glop, and everyone's there to catch them and wipe the glop off? Let me tell you, thank goodness we had people to catch us when we landed and help us make the transition from one world to another. It was a hard shock, mentally, physically, you-name-it-ally. Truth be told, at this point I just want to go back to Antwerp.
To backtrack a moment, here's how we got home after our lovely time in Estepona. We flew from Malaga Airport to Brussels Airport on Friday the 11th, then stayed over at the Holiday Inn Brussels Airport. I chose the place because it has an indoor pool that the girls could play in for hours before they'd be cooped up in a plane for hours. Mom and Dad stayed with us there too, so we had some more time together before they flew back to the Twin Cities. Mr. K met us there (SO NICE TO SEE HIM!) and brought some bags we'd left with him. He agreed to join us for dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, which actually isn't all that expensive, as hotel restaurants go. Would you believe we all ordered burgers and fries? We had had so many multi-course Fantastic dinners that we just wanted some grub, and it was good. Another sad goodbye to Mr. K, and then a truly sad goodbye to my mom and dad on Saturday morning. I wish they lived closer (HINT HINT) so we could see them more often.
We got into Dulles about 9pm last Saturday and all of our luggage made it safe and sound, except MeiMei's car seat, which somehow didn't make it from Malaga to Brussels. We still don't have it. They (SN Brussels Airlines) called to tell us it had been flown to Atlanta, and did we have it yet...no we don't. So we have an extra one to use for now. Whatever.
A nice lady from the JMU motor pool was there to meet us and drive us to Harrisonburg, thank goodness. The girls nodded off and I went to the back seat of the cargo van to do the same. I was in the twlight zone bigtime. When we got home it was almost midnight. That's six a.m. Belgium time. So we'd been traveling almost 24 hours straight. Ouch.
What did I think of home when I got there, after being gone so long? If you live in and love Harrisonburg, PLEASE don't be offended. I've lived here myself almost twenty years, but I have to say, as I rubbed my eyes and sat up all groggy in the back seat of that van, I caught sight of a gas station and a cinder block grocery store, and the first thing that came into my head was I live here? Talk about the bubble popping. John said he had much the same reaction. We had come to take spectacular architecture for granted and all of a sudden we're back in sort of mish-mosh American exurban vernacular, a little Victorian here, a little 60's boxy there, a little coordinated-facade strip mall over there. Blah.
How did the girls react? Well, they are at totally opposite ends of the spectrum. JieJie (the five-year-old) remembered everything from home. When we got in the house, John saw her march straight over to MeiMei's "treasure box," pull out a harmonica she'd gotten for Christmas and walk it over to her own treasure box--and as she went, John heard her mutter to herself I thought I left that there. Scary! A few days later we went to Kroger to grocery shop and she asked if she could have animal crackers, then promptly informed me which aisle they are in.
MeiMei on the other hand (almost 4) seemed to remember nothing about this house. She said "Mommy, I need to go potty. Where's the bathroom?" and as she sat on the toilet she said "is this our new house?" The next morning she asked me if we were in a hotel. She also refused a toy because "we won't be able to fit it in our suitcase." She doesn't like to let me out of her sight, although that's getting better. Both of the girls had to stick so close to me for safety's sake while we were away...for the first several days I had little shadows! I was afraid I was going to step on someone by accident.
We measured our girls yesterday on their growth charts and they've each grown an inch since we left...wow! On Tuesday JieJie had her kindergarten registration meeting too, since that had already begun. We're excited that we didn't miss the orientation night at her school.
So slowly but surely, our family and friends have gathered around, dropped by, checked in, and we are re-integrating into the lives we left here in January. Strange: our Christmas card basket was still on a bookshelf in the tv room and our holiday tablecloth still on the dining room table, though our irises are in full bloom around the front porch. Anyway, tomorrow morning it's back to church, and our calendar is starting to be dotted with picnics, meetings, etc.
Still, some permanent changes will take place as a result of our time in Antwerp. We are more willing to pay more for better quality food at the grocery or farmer's market. We are less likely to go out to eat (why be disappointed??). We are more likely to walk where we need to go. We are much more conscious of the amount of electricity we use and have been near-obsessive about turning things off when not in use. Same goes for water. We realize that our old (ok, antique) toilets are just guzzling water. In Europe it's really common to see dual-flush mode toilets, where you can choose a small flush for liquid waste and a larger flush for solid waste, and we are already planning to replace our toilets (especially the one that seems to run constantly) with these more water-wise contraptions. I'd like to start composting again, and I'd like to set up rain collection barrels to use for watering the garden and stuff like that. In Belgium, all of the houses out in the country are required to have a cistern for collecting rain water, and I believe Mr. K and his wife L told us it has to hold at least 500 liters. That would be a great policy for new construction here too. It makes no sense to let all that rainwater just go into storm drains and out to rivers and oceans, when it could be put to use around the house.
There are water shortages in the Costa del Sol (no wonder, since they are building there faster than in Vegas, it seems) to the point that the townhouse renter's manual asked us to consider putting a watering can under the tub faucet while we adjusted the water temperature for a shower, and then to please use the water for the plants on the balconies. We take for granted that clean water will be there whenever we turn the faucet, but I just read that the average American toilet uses more fresh water in one flush than some people have available to them in a day.
Something to think about.
I'll write more in the days to come as I work through the aftermath of our time away. I seem to be having sort of reverse culture shock. Ah well, better to have gone and come home than never to have gone at all, eh? :)
Thursday, May 10, 2007
So first we are leaving Spain´s costa del sol and the Estepona Townhouse. It has been just lovely, especially the roof terrace and rooftop kitchen. We´ve eaten our fill of spanish olives, paella, pulpo (octopus), calamari (MeiMei now asks for it by name and wolfs it down like it was candy) and gambas (huge shrimp with the lovely sweet taste of lobster). We haven´t seen a whole lot more since I last wrote, just the lovely little white village, or puebla blanca, of San Roque, which overlooks the bay of Algeciras and the oh so recognizable Rock of Gibraltar. How cool that we can look right across the strait and see Africa! And how cool too that the girls see it and say to their daddy, "take us there someday!" John and I went to San Roque while the girls had their afternoon lay down time and we had a great lunch, he with an entrecote (rib steak) and me with another local specialty, fried anchovy fillets.
Last night we celebrated my mom´s 66th birthday and what a great evening it was. First we went to a chiringuito, one of the many beachside eateries that dot the beaches of Estepona. We had a lovely seafood dinner and mom and I each had a tinto de verano, or red wine of summer, which is a lovely drink, just red wine and lemon soda over ice. You should try one! Then for dessert we went to a local ice cream place or heladeria and there was an accordionist playing fun music, an adorable active 18 month old boy making the rounds of the tables, and then to top it all off a huge pomelo sized citrus fruit suddenly fell on a nearby table, sending the entire outdoor clientele into gales of laughter. I have a picture of the almost-victim with the fruit, which she was planning to take home and eat, sweet revenge. Mom is laughing in one corner of the photo.
The girls have enjoyed playing at the beach, collecting shells, rocks, jumping in the just-beginning-to-warm-up water, and all that lovely beach stuff. Still, their stamina is wearing thin and they are clearly eager to get home.
Which brings me back to my point. Tomorrow we pack our stuff and ourselves into our VW Caddy and set off for Malaga Airport to return the car to Amigo Autos - Europa Goldcar. We fly to Brussels, where we will take a shuttle to the Holiday Inn...or Mr. K will pick us up...we´ll see when we get there I guess! We are hoping to be able to take him to dinner one more time. The girls will as usual treat him like the second coming of Elvis. We will find someplace to spend our remaining euros on Belgian chocolates to give as gifts when we get home. We will swim in the indoor pool (a must before transatlantic flights!!!) and then Saturday morning we´ll wish the grandparents bon voyage, then get ourselves to the airport for an early afternoon takeoff, then connect at Heathrow for our flight to Washington DC. By the time we get home it will be late Saturday night. We are hoping and praying for a quick recovery from jet lag...
It seems only yesterday that we were just beginning our Belgian adventure, waiting for the stroller to arrive...the stroller that has now been sold. Looking forward to so many things that are now in the past. I´m sad in a way, but so many things have turned out so well, and the girls have had such an amazing adventure, I have no regrets.
Looking forward to a summer by the pool. Hasta la vista, dear readers.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Estepona is quiet, pretty, affordable, with a well kept beach and boardwalk and lots of pedestrian friendly areas, esp streets that are too narrow for cars anyway, though some locals have the knack and then we step into doorways to let them by.
The Carrefour here...think French Wal Mart...has an amazing seafood section that´s all local stuff. You can buy a whole octopus if you want, and if you know how to prepare it. So far we´ve had flounder, calamari, sole, lobster...paella of course.
We have been thwarted somewhat as far as day trips go. We can´t leave Spain-EU because we have technically stayed more than a 90-day tourist visa allows, so if we went to Gibraltar or Morocco we may actually have difficulty getting back. Alhambra tickets are sold out til May 20 so we are left with either buying from a travel agency and paying their premium or just chucking the Granada trip and heading instead for Cordoba and-or Seville. We went to Ronda up in the mountains last Wednesday. It rained and was cold but we still had a nice time.
Hardest to get used to in Spain is the way the day is structured. Siesta from 2 til 4 or even 5pm is very much observed, and people really do rest up or at least I´d need to because they eat dinner around 10pm, children included! Wow.
Anyway, better go and check on that tour but I have a feeling we´re out of luck this time. Next time we´ll take them seriously when they say order Alhambra tickets as soon as you know you´re going!!!
Bye for now...
Saturday, April 28, 2007
The girls' school had a big farewell party Friday afternoon. For the last hour they all played in the green courtyard, all these amazing little kids in their little uniforms, running and playing and singing songs. JieJie and MeiMei were given little flowered crowns to wear, and a class they're not even IN all drew a sheaf of pictures which were presented to JieJie, bound with a ribbon. My mom made chocolate chip cookies with Belgian chocolate chips which got extra melty and all the kids had chocolate around their smiling mouths. All the children hugged and kissed our girls goodbye, their teachers hugged them and kissed them and got teary, I got teary, my husband was close, my parents were really impressed by the whole thing, and the headmistress, who has often been very formal (though not in a not-nice way at all!) gave me the Belgian three-kisses as we left, and we both were about to cry. I'm about to cry just typing this. We promised to keep in touch and they promised to keep in touch. The one moment that really got me was when JieJie's teacher gave her and MeiMei photos of their class waving to the camera and said "these are for you so you will always think of us." I really had to get out of there at the end, because I was going to lose it, and that's not quite the thing to do so I didn't.
Man. We have gotten involved, and that means we have gotten...well, involved, you know? It feels wrong to take the girls out of such a fantastic school and such an amazing community.
I take back everything I ever said about the things I didn't like. I could live here.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
An amazing thing happened on the way to get JieJie and MeiMei from school--for the first time ever, I got checked by the Lijn police!!! I had just said to my mom yesterday, "watch, I'll get checked this week when I haven't been checked at all since we got here." Sure enough, the spot-checking finally worked its way around to me, and I'm so glad I had my pass handy!! The doors opened at our National Bank transfer point from the 7 to the 8, and all of a sudden a man was blocking my path out of the tram, speaking Nederlands in a very assertive way. I realized he wanted to see my pass, which he reviewed and handed back. Mom and Dad had their Lijn cards handy too, so it was no problem, but man, the experience definitely made me want to avoid ever being caught without my tram pass!! Our three-month passes expire Saturday, so when we head for the airport bus on Sunday, I will have to remember to pay a fare or else.
When we picked up the girls, JieJie seemed for the first time to be blending English and Nederlands almost thoughtlessly. She dropped something and exclaimed "whooey!" just like her teacher does! Then she told me there was a two-wheeled "fiets" at her school before realizing to whom she was speaking and correcting it to "bicycle." She used the Dutch name for something else on our way to the tram stop. I am willing to bet money that if we were here for just another month, she'd go through the looking glass.
The final dinner tonight was at die Siechel on Venusstraat, the place where the American Club met in February, and it was a great evening. Our students were dressed up, everyone looked so nice, and there was a real air of celebration there tonight. We were presented with the group photo (our girls are right there in front with school uniforms on) and a beautiful coffee table book about Antwerp. And guess what? We ate chocolate. Duh.
Tomorrow is the last Wednesday of the month, a day when all museums in Antwerp are free, so I believe I'll be taking my folks to the Nautical Museum in the Steen and/or the big art museum.
My big excitement today was that the Brabo fountain in the Grote Markt has been turned on, so I finally get to see what it looks like with the water shooting out of it. It's kind of gory when you look at where the water gushes most: the hand of the giant that Brabo is getting ready to throw has water spewing out of where the arteries would be in the wrist, and the giant has like eight spigots in the stump of his arm where his hand was. Ewww! But still, it's a great fountain and I'll bet it's a popular place to cool off in hot weather, because it doesn't spill into a pool, it just splashes right onto the cobblestones, which are arranged in a concave area that drains back toward the base of the fountain.
Not sure how many more times I'm going to be able to write before we head to Estepona, Spain on Sunday, and I have no idea whether I'll have any internet access there whatsoever. If the blog goes quiet for a while, it's because we're on vacation. Tune in in late May for the Estepona story and (I hope) tales of our visit to the Alhambra. Vamos a tener un buen viaje por seguro!
Monday, April 23, 2007
Sorry I don't have many photos of late - my Fuji FinePix died and my hubby treated me to a new Canon PowerShot A460, but I'm loath to load the software onto the university's laptop just for a week. I did find a nice shot of Regent's Park, where the girls spent some serious quality time over the past few days. What a beautiful place to spend a few hours.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first: Wednesday, we sold La Stroller and said a grateful farewell to the lovely machine that gave us so much freedom to see and do since January. The buyer was a woman who provides before and after school care for two students at the girls' school, and wants an easy, non-car way to get them from place to place. She saved a pile of money, and we actually made a small profit. Free stroller--hooray!
Thursday morning we took the tram to Antwerpen Centraal to catch a train to Brussels-Zuid, where the Eurostar terminal is. Eurostar is a high-speed train that goes through the Chunnel to London. Ever since Eurostar service began, flights between Brussels and London have dropped dramatically because the train is so enjoyable and affordable. It was very comfy, and the girls settled in to color and play their LeapPads as we glided through the countryside. What a difference from January! Back then they were so curious about all the things on the train, it was like traveling wtih ferrets, but now they know the drill and just settle in for the ride.
We got to London-Waterloo and took the Underground to Warren Street, then walked to "ISH", International Students House, our home for the next three nights. ISH is hostel-like, but it's quite nice and you can't beat the neighborhood--right in Central London, diagonal from Regent's Park! And you don't have to be a student to stay there, though you do have to be affiliated with a university. We had a room with three sets of bunk beds. One scan of the situation and we knew MeiMei would be unable to have or even visit a top bunk. No safetry rails. JieJie has never been a bed-faller-outer, so she was the only one of us in a top bunk and she liked it just fine. The shower room was private, unlike some of the other more dorm-style rooms in the facility. Some mildew in the shower, but that was the only thing about the whole facility that wasn't up to quite a high standard for a mass student residence. It was safe, well maintained, sheets were clean, beds comfortable, and best of all there was a cheap, good cafeteria right down in the basement of ISH that serves three meals a day. London is SO expensive, especially with the current 2-to-1 exchange rate, so having a cheap alternative for meals--especially when the girls so rarely finish all of theirs--was crucial.
After unpacking and resting a bit, we grabbed lunch at Pret a Manger (yum!) and it was off to the British Museum, admission free. The Great Court is quite impressive, a former open-to-the-sky courtyard that has been glassed in a la the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The grid-like shadows from the glass roof make really cool shadows on the white stone facades of the courtyard. I took some fun photos of the girls. John headed off on the tour with the JMU students and I asked about family tour options. I was directed to the library to ask for an activity backpack. The British Museum has activity packs for about six different exhibits, two that are appropriate for really little kids like ours. We chose the Africa pack and went to the exhibit. The pack was really great! It includes a globe so you can point out different countries as you look at the various exhibits. JieJie and MeiMei got to dress a velcro/paper doll to match a chief depicted on a bronze frieze. They got to compare little plastic farm animals to animal bronzes. They looked at animal masks and made their own mask using velcro pieces and a velcro swim-cap type thing. They also were challenged to find masks depicting six different animals using photos of the real animal and clues to help them find the answer. I was really impressed with the activities.
After the pack was finished, we saw heiroglyphics, sarcophagii, big stone Buddhas, a totem pole, and various other treasures collected by (or stolen by, depending upon your perspective on this ongoing controversy) representatives of the British Empire past and present. We sat for a cold drink, some students joined us, and I left the girls in their care while I went for a quick duck into the gift shop's children's section where I got a Colorforms-style heirglyphics set for each girl, and two neat books, "All Kinds of Homes" and "All Kinds of Beliefs" about the different ways people do things in different parts of the world. JieJie has had questions about things like why the Hassidim we see in Antwerp wear their hair and clothing the way they do, things like that. It's helpful to have a book that presents an open-minded perspective on the spectrum of cultures the world has to offer.
We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe near Green Park. It's the original one, and still in the original location. The memorabilia was fun to look at. We were sitting right near a suit Roger Daltrey wore--he's not very tall! We also chuckled to think that the last time we were in a Hard Rock Cafe, we were with baby JieJie in Guangzhou, China (that location has since closed).
That night Mr. K (bless him!) babysat while John and I went to see "We Will Rock You," the show based on the music of Queen. I love their music, and from a music and technical standpoint the show was very enjoyable. The show's book though (script) was hundvlees--DOG MEAT. The plot didn't make sense, people's motivations morphed mid-sentence...it just plain didn't make sense. I felt like we were in the 21st-century version of one of those early musicals where the plot is a series of justifications to get to the next song (usually 'Swonderful) and I thought why have a plot at all? But then again if you don't make a story, you're lumped in with all the other tribute shows, so I understand. And Queen's music is just plain strong enough...good sauce on the dog meat, shall we say.
Friday morning: world's largest ferris wheel! We got to ride on the London Eye and it was fantastic. I highly (ha) recommend it. From the fully enclosed lobby-like cabs, you can see the houses of parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, you name it. JieJie spotted a playground, so we went there after disembarking while John accompanied the students to their next rendezvous point. He came back and found us so we could get lunch together, which we did, at a place called Giraffe at the Royal Festival Hall complex. It's just east of the London Eye after you go under the Jubilee Bridge. Lunch was good but exPENsive...like (after the exchange rate) ninety bucks. OUCH. And we're talking sandwich/salads and smoothies, not filet mignon. Anyway.
After lunch John helped me get the girls back to ISH for some rest time before heading to Westminster Abbey for his next tour. After they rested, the girls and I went to Regent's Park, which boasts four playgrounds, beautiful gardens, a boating lake, and the London Zoo. We never made it past the first playground! For two hours plus, they climbed, went on swings, merry go rounds, and seesaws, played with other kids, had an ice cream cone...it was such a great place to be with them and they really got to have their kind of fun. On the way back to ISH, we went through some of the beautiful gardens and they splashed their hands in fountains. What a fantastic park! I chatted for a while with a woman who was born in China, married a guy from India, they lived in New York for a while, and just moved to London last week to try living there for a while. I can see why. I could absolutely live there--though it's SO expensive (did I say that already?).
Dinner Friday was sort of catch-as-catch-can. I got the girls something from the cafeteria rather early as they seemed pretty wiped out. They fell asleep about 7pm. John and I did the "tag-team" thing, going out for a bite one at a time.
Saturday morning JMU was scheduled to go to the Tower of London. After looking it up in my Take the Kids to London book, I decided to skip it in favor of a trip to Covent Garden. After messing up the Underground transfers (got on the wrong line, urgh) we arrived in Covent Garden and proceeded to have one of the best mornings I've had this whole semester. Covent Garden Market is filled with performing arts treats. We heard an opera singer, saw a brass band play a great Beatles medley (how British--the medley used "Day Tripper" to connect a bunch of fantastic songs), the girls left our outdoor lunch table at Fuel (great pizza, and we got enough for the three of us for under ten pounds) to watch some men do Morris Dances (as in, "I'll be there with bells on!"--the men wear bells on their sock garters) and, the piece de resistance, A REAL PUNCH-AND-JUDY SHOW!!!!! I was so excited for them. And they loved it. All day they laughed about so-and-so getting "whacked on the head." Why is that so funny? But when puppets get angry and whack each other with slapsticks, it just is. The presenter said the first such show was presented back in the 1600's. I guess whacking puppets has been funny for quite some time.
We met John back at ISH, where he was finishing up lunch, and headed for our rendezvous with Mr. K at the Apollo Theatre near Victoria Station. The plan was for Mr. K to take the girls back to the park while John and I saw a matinee of "Wicked." It worked quite well. MeiMei had fallen asleep in my lap, but I know she is so comfortable with Mr. K by now (he's become like a favorite uncle) that I had no reservations about putting her (still asleep, mind you) and JieJie in a taxi with him for their trip to the park. And they had a GREAT time with him. He was going to take them to see the lake, but also didn't make it past the first playground.
"Wicked" was the best show I've seen in a long, long time. The script, the music, the performances, the technical aspects all came together to make a nearly perfect few hours in the theatre. I laughed, I cried, I hope to see it again with the girls when they're old enough. I hope my parents see it. I hope you see it, if you haven't already.
When we got back to ISH, we called Mr. K to tell him we were en route to the room, and he said oh no, just come to the bar, that's where we are! He had bought them sodas and they were happily sipping away, grinning like jack-o-lanterns (and that's including Mr. K). We had reservations for dinner at a Thai place called Blue Elephant out toward Wimbledon, so it was back on the Underground. Blue Elephant was a lovely place with great food. We got the girls an order of Chicken Sate and some rice and vegetables, which suited them just fine. The three adults got the Royal Thai dinner, which comes in several courses. John and I both said, as much as we loved the food, we felt that our Taste of Thai restaurant back in Harrisonburg very much holds its own compared with Blue Elephant and also Sombat, a Thai place here in Antwerp. The only thing Taste of Thai doesn't have is the dramatic decorating that Blue Elephant and Sombat have, but I find that ambeince is most important the first time I go somewhere, and after that it's the food that keeps me coming back.
The girls were well behaved enough to earn themselves praise from the couple at the next table, who said when they saw little ones at the next table they groaned, but that our girls were so good, the couple forgot we were even there! It was so great to see the girls swell with pride at this unsolicited praise. I was just glad they made it through dessert after such a busy day! They fell asleep in our arms on the Underground, and we carried them up to our room and put them in bed, the little angels. We are the luckiest parents in the whole world. Love those girlies.
Saturday morning, breakfast at ISH, then back to Waterloo Station and back on the Eurostar after a too-short trip to a wonderful, absolutely charming city that we can't wait to come back to. Not to mention the weather we had was very un-London: 70's and sunny for three days in a row. We got back to Antwerp (our apartment always seems so huge after we're all together in a hotel room) and all got to bed early.
This morning I went to Brussels Airport on the 7am airport bus from DeKeyserlei and met my parents at their 8am arrival from the U.S. Let the fiesta begin! Grampa and Gramma might as well be rock stars where our girls are concerned, and when they saw my folks after school today, they squealed and jumped and laughed and hugged and squealed some more. Dinner tonight was at the Eleventh Commandment down by Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk--what a place! It's filled with statuary and decorative arts pieces from decommissioned churches and cathedrals. It's so funny to have a beer and some nice beef stew while the saints and angels look down upon you as though they're praying for your immortal soul. They needn't; the food is so good, we were already in heaven.