Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Birthdays Abroad

The first week of March was a festive week indeed! Our friends T&K were here, and their visit coincided with JieJie's much-anticipated fifth birthday, which she has been talking about since the day after she turned four.

Partway through the week, K and I boarded the 32 bus which goes out to the 'burbs and stops in the Oosterveld neighborhood near Grare, the American food store. We were there in search of some of JieJie's favorite food from home as a special treat for her birthday. It was so funny to see all of the familiar packages, and realize that most of what we can't get here we shouldn't be eating anyway. Partially hydrogenated high fructose reconstituted crap--admit it, you eat it too. We got three boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a box of Life Cereal which I wrapped and put on the table for her to open the morning of her birthday, and a Funfetti cake mix, which I planned to make and bring to her class. We also got a little package of Hershey's Kissables candy-coated kisses, some Jelly Bellies for Easter, and I think that's it. The store also has lots of Tex-Mex stuff, and things like beef jerky, microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, etc. Honestly I don't miss anything enough to bother going back to Grare and paying exorbitant prices for it, but it's nice to know that the option is there for special occasions.

On the way home, K & I sat across from a man on the bus who asked if we were British. I said "no, American." He smirked and said "I don't like Americans. They always like everything to be so big." I said "well, I suppose..." or something noncommittal (you never know who you're talking to, best not to get into a silly argument). He said again "I don't like America." I smiled a bit and said "well, I guess I'm stuck then." He asked why I was here and I explained that my family and I were living here through a university affiliation and that we very much liked Belgium, and living in Antwerp (and I wondered if the man had ever been to the U.S.--after all, at least I can speak about Belgium from some experience!). I pointed out a beautiful Art Nouveau townhouse to K and she and I chatted quietly to one another about the lovely houses we were passing on the bus. Before the man got off the bus, he must've realized he was being a jerk because he actually said "well, I hope you enjoy your time in Antwerp" before he got off the bus. Hunh? K and I just looked at one another and shook our heads. What is one to do? The guy struck me as just grumpy in general and it certainly has not been our experience that people here are aggressively anti-American at all. You hear it over and over, people in other countries distinguish between our government and our people. They may hate the former but they don't mind the latter so much. Having said that, we try as much as possible to fit in and keep our American-accented voices down in public. For me it's not so much about avoiding trouble as about not disturbing what's going on around me so I can really be a part of it.

So we got back to the apartment (yes somehow I went from groceries to anti-Americanism, but there you are) and I put the cake mix together. The girls helped and got all excited about cracking the eggs, mixing the batter, and of course licking the bowl. I baked the cake until it was pulling away from the pan, browned around the edges. Perfect.

We all went to dinner and when I came home I started cutting the cake into small pieces to bring for JieJie's class (teacher asked that I not frost it because of the mess & the kids' uniforms) and to my horror, the cake was not done in the center AT ALL. I tried unsuccessfully to bake it a bit longer but the whole middle was just like pudding. Barf. Now what to do?! I ended up taking JieJie to school and then running back to Goossens Bakkerij to ask if they had any of their famous apple cakes, which are shaped like a loaf (pound cake-like). They had two of them, and also an orange cake, so I bought all three, raced back to the school, borrowed a knife from the teachers' lounge, cut the cakes into 8 pieces each, and I somehow managed to catch JieJie's teacher's eye without JJ herself noticing that I was there so I could give her the cakes. She gave me a knowing smile - she's a mom too. She also said the book we gave the class in honor of JJ's birthday was perfect (it was a book of craft projects for kids to do) and that they had already planned to make one of the Father's Day crafts. Yesterday was Vaderdag in Belgium, by the way, so Gelukkige Vaderdag to all the dads.

The evening of JieJie's birthday, we had a nice dinner in our apartment with special guests T&K and a lovely chocolate cake from Bastin Chocolatier (www.g-bastin.com), plus Macaroni & Cheese and fruit salad for the girls, and scallops for the adults. She got some Ramona books from T&K (we've already finished Beezus and Ramona and are halfway through Ramona the Pest) and we gave her a custom made princess outfit from www.princessenjurken.nl, the company my friend's friend started in her home which is destined to become a big business if the proprietor so desires. The dresses are GREAT, very "foofy" as we say. MeiMei got a dress too...after all, what fun is it to play dress-up all by yourself?! She also had presents to open from grandparents and aunts and uncles, and family friends who made sure to send things in time for the big day (M, the makeup kit is a huge hit!). She got several phone calls too--she seemed so excited that everyone was thinking of her on her birthday. What a beautiful, radiant smile she has when she is genuinely happy.

So it may not have been the kind of birthday party JieJie envisioned, with school friends all around a big cake in some party-themed room somewhere in the Harrisonburg area, but I think she had a nice birthday just the same.

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