Sunday, April 15, 2007

We survived school vacation!

Wow...three weeks with no school for the girls, and we are now crossing the finish line, as John reads a bedtime story to two very in-need-of-routine little girls.

To recap: last week of March was a bus trip to France. First week of April was spent locally in Antwerp, just taking it easy and going to local parks, things like that. We found a great place, too, thanks to a fellow mom from the girls' school: Nachtegalen (Nightengale) Park, just a 10-minute bus ride from the Groenplaats. In addition to two very nice playgrounds, one for little ones and one for bigger kids, there's a little animal area with deer, a bridge over a brook filled with goldfish, so many nice walking and biking trails, and right there overlooking the playgrounds is the Melkirij, a casual restaurant / pub with indoor and outdoor seating. On nice days, though, you really have to stake out a table because all of the parents are eager to get a spot. It's great, because kids can come to the table and have a swig of a cold drink before diving back into the playground, and parents can settle in and enjoy the beautiful day, while keeping an eye on the kiddies.

Easter Sunday was a bit of a bust. The Easter Bunny part was great! We had decorated some dime-store baskets with extra ribbon, and each of the girls was so proud of her creation. They got some chocolate and some Jelly Bellies, and a K3 DVD (wish there was some way for those to work in our DVD players at home!). The mistake we made (and it was a really dumb one) was trying to go to a High Mass at Onze Lieve Vrouwecathedral, the big one with the clock tower that dominates the skyline. The first hour would have been sufficient, but we pushed our luck and soon had to exit in the midst of a full tantrum. I hate that! Then we tried to turn things around by going on a river boat cruise, but it only got worse, so by the time we got home we were about ready to chuck the whole day. We were both grumbly which made the girls even more clingy...I guess you could say it was a bad case of Family Claustrophobia.

So Monday we set out for De Panne with high hopes, and I'm happy to say that it was truly a wonderful week, a great respite from the pavement and trams and bustle of Antwerp. We stayed at Strandpark which is right between De Panne and neighboring Kokside. We got there via two trains and a tram: Antwerpen-Centraal to Gent St-Pieter, then a change at Gent to DePanne (station is actually a bit inland in Adinkerke), and then the Kusttram (Coast tram) to De Panne - Golfstraat. The Kusttram is operated by DeLijn, so that was free since we still have our three-month passes.

Strandpark is so nice and quiet. If you've ever been to Virginia Beach, you know what high-rises hugging the coast look like. The Belgian coast tends to be like that, but Strandpark somehow managed to stay small, hidden behind the dunes, just one-story motel-like rooms. It's actually a converted motel, and then there are some more recently built larger units. I can't tell you how amazing it was to be there with the girls and just reconnect with the best in each other. We were on the ground floor, had a table outside for meals and coloring and hanging out, the girls could go in and out as they pleased, and of course the beach is just great for kids--they immediately "get it." In no time they were building sand castles, fetching water, looking for shells, chasing and playing and laughing.

John came down with us to help us get settled in, and thank goodness he did because we did have to backtrack a few times to find the place and I'm not sure I could've managed two girls and the luggage on my own. He had to go back later in the day. The girls and I walked to the promenade (like the boardwalk) and got crepes with strawberries on top for "dinner."

Tuesday was PLOPSALAND!!! We haven't really been to a kiddie theme park with them before, though we've taken them to the county fair and to kiddie rides at the Point Pleasant NJ boardwalk, that kind of thing. This was just the most incredible day. I was prepared for meltdowns and frustration but I'm telling you we made it from 10:01 to 18:30 (getting used to military time, and you know it does make things clear not having to worry about the am/pm thing) with only one little glitch just before dinner time, which is to be expected given their ages.

Plopsaland is organized around a group of tv shows produced by Studio 100, including Bumba, Plop / The Wereld Is Mooi, Piet Piraat, Big & Betsy, and of course K3. We saw the whole park, starting with destination numero uno: The K3 Museum. I kid you not. We had not heard of K3 at all before we got here, and now we are surrounded by Karen, Kristel and Kathleen. Imagine the three prettiest, coolest kindergarten teachers got together and made themselves into a supergroup, and you've got a beginning sense of things. Karen is the redhead, a bit mischievous. Kristel has dark hair and tends to be in charge, level-headed. Kathleen is blonde, kind of the sweet girl of the group. They all sing beautifully and their songs are the kind of thing you'd actually like a little girls to sing along with. Songs about how great Grandmas are (Oma's Aan De Top) and songs about making your dreams come true (Toveren). JieJie said "I want the K3 Museum!" so we found it on the map and it was great - a room full of the K3 story, starting in 1999 when they released "Heyah Mama" thinking they could be the Dutch-speaking Spice Girls...but then all these little girls bought the single and they apparently changed their business plan and image to fit their audience. With over 2,000,000 albums sold to date, plus DVD's, a musical (we saw it on Friday and it was think the girls' first musical was in Nederlands (Dutch)!), K3 makeup kits, K3 princess dresses, K3 cookies for the lunch boxes...anything you can get in the US with Dora the Explorer, they have it here with K3. I think we're going to be going through some serious withdrawal when we get home.

So then we went to the Big and Betsy area of Plopsaland, farm related rides. JieJie got to drive a car (on rails) through the farm. The Bumba area is like a traditional carnival with a carousel, bumper cars, that sort of thing. And so on and so on, through the park, through the day. The tilt-a-whirl cups were called the KoffieKopjes and they were Delft blue. I loved how local everything was, how unique to this area and this culture. Come to think of it, there's really not a lot of franchising here. Incredibly, I have not been in or even seen a Starbuck's since January. The food at Plopsaland was just fine, and not even as overpriced as I'm used to at places like Busch Gardens.

By dinnertime, we were hot and tired and the playful "fountainplein" near the entrance was the perfect antidote. We headed to the tram stop that is half a block from the front entrance, and rode back to Strandpark. I had to take turns carrying JieJie and MeiMei a little ways at a time because they were so worn out, but given how much walking and standing in line and fun-fun-fun they did, I was really amazed that they came home with smiles on their faces. JieJie said "that was a really great place Mom...can we go back again tomorrow?" Whoa! Given unlimited funds, I would have said yes. Actually MeiMei was free because she is not yet a meter tall, so I just had to pay for me and JieJie. Strandpark is a Plopsaland Partner, too--we bought our tickets for the park from the hotel, saving us a few euro and a wait in the ticket line.

Wednesday was a beach day. We took the tram to the west end of the promenade and spent the day working our way back to Strandpark. Simple as that! The beach there is really wide and the slope so gradual, like Cape May / Wildwood NJ. It's perfect for kids because you don't have to worry about some rogue wave grabbing your child the moment you turn your back.

Wednesday night John arrived late, and Thursday we tried renting the fun-looking "family bike-cars" you can ride on the promenade. Too stressful with all the people! We turned ours in before we'd used up all our time just to be done with all the dodging and weaving. Perhaps it would be more fun when the crowds are thinner.

Friday we headed back to Antwerp, refreshed and ready for that night's K3 concert at Antwerp's Lotto Arena.

Saturday JOHN FINISHED HIS BOOK! He's been slogging through page proofs since February, and this book (Doing History, with co-authors Michael Galgano and Raymond Hyser) has been in the works since 2003. We went to Nachtegalen with the girls and John had a celebratory beer on the terrace at the Melkirij.

That night we went to Kleine Zavel on the Stoofstraat for a dinner out with another couple we met through JieJie and MeiMei's school. Great meal--we had an appetizer of tempura shrimp wrapped in smoked salmon with avocado on the side, and John had a white fish called Brill for his entree, served with a Bearnaise sauce. I had rack of lamb with an herbed pancake and Mediterranean vegetables on top. We toasted John's book and had a very enjoyable conversation. This couple plans to vacation in the USA next year and we definitely hope to see them and keep in touch. We really hit it off. After dinner, they took us to yet another really cool place (they know all these little hideaways) with a Spanish theme. Tucked back in a courtyard near the Stoofstraat and the Zand, the bar has tapas, port, and my favorite Spanish treat: flan. Some people don't care for this delicate custard, but if done well, it's heaven (hemels lekker!) and this one was great. Wish I could tell you the name of the place, but perhaps you'll find it yourself when you wander around down in that neighborhood.

Today John took his day trip. We had agreed back in January that we could each have a day to ourselves. I took mine on the 4th of this month and went to Delft to meet my friend M. It was a great, great day and we got to spend some much-needed one on one time together. John chose Roubaix, France, the site of the finish line of the Paris-Roubaix bike race. It's a big deal race--you could've watched it on three different tv channels here today. He went with the husband of the couple we went out with last night, and they had a blast. Free seats in the velodrome right on the finish line. I was so glad he had a great day, and the weather is downright summery - 80's and sunny today.

I did not have my favorite day with the girls. We tried to go to a park but by the time we got there it was too hot, I forgot to bring water, the girls were out of sorts and cranky, and we got into one of those blasted negative cycles where everything just feeds everything else until I want to scream and the girls actually do. Oh well. We'll always have Plopsaland...

Starting tomorrow we have the last two weeks of the program, the girls' school, the whole thing. Hard to believe, but we're almost done here already. Wednesday is really our last "normal" day as far as what we've gotten used to here. Thursday to Sunday is London. Monday my folks arrive. A week from Thursday our students depart, some for home, some for a few weeks or months of backpacking around Europe. A week from Saturday we move out of the apartment. Two weeks from today we head to Estepona. Four weeks from today we will wake up in our own beds back in Harrisonburg.


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