Saturday, January 20, 2007

Weekend: Antwerp errands and sightseeing

We're staying put this weekend and doing some local exploring. The director of the JMU Study Abroad program arrived yesterday and will be here for a week, showing us the ropes.

Last evening (Friday) we went to a neat Scottish pub called The Highlander on Prinsesstraat. It's the meeting place of BATS, the British Amateur Theatre Society, and a fellow JMU staff member here in Antwerp says it has a "Cheers" atmosphere in terms of the regulars who get to know one another. The girls came along and tried the macaroni and cheese (makaroni-kaas) which is their favorite, while I had a nice plate of spaghetti bolognese. I was thankful for the boisterous atmosphere because it meant the girls didn't have to whisper their way through the meal. We're really trying to limit dining out so that they can relax when it's time to eat. It's only fair, when so much is expected of them.

Later last evening, John attended a meeting of the Antwerp American Club as a guest of Mr. K. It's the 2nd oldest such society of its type in Belgium, second only to the Brussels chapter. There used to be a substantial American community here, but the club has dwindled to eight members (perhaps today's American expats just don't have interest in joining). John spoke to one 88-year-old member who is a WW2 veteran who did the Mermansk run as a merchant mariner. He enjoyed the evening, being the sort who is genuinely interested in people and the stories of how they came to be where they are.

Me? I stayed in to watch "The Italian Job" on tv while the girls slept. It was nice just to chill and do nothing. And I love a good heist movie.

This morning we had some errands to run and marketing to do, so we split into separate teams and set off about 10am. John and JieJie went to the grocery store with the grocery caddy on wheels. MeiMei and I went to a store called Unif on the Quellinstraat, where we were able to locate gym shoes and tights that fit MeiMei. She's so tiny, the smallest gym shoe they sell is a size larger than she takes, but not by much. Yesterday we'd found JieJie's tights at a department store on the Meir called Inno, but they didn't have anything smaller.

On the way back from Unif, I had a Navigational Light Bulb Moment! Antwerp had really thrown me this week. Normally I have a fairly reliable sense of direction, but the streets have a way of curving and shifting that keeps messing with my internal compass. Finally this morning I looked down from the Teniers Plaats and saw the tail end of the Meir shopping street! MeiMei and I followed Leysstraat to the Meir and found our way home, stopping en route for a chocolate croissant of course.

When we got home, John and JieJie had returned from the Super GB with goodies for the week: new kinds of meat and cheese to try, some Muesli with chocolate and other treats.

Lunch, then quiet time + orientation meeting, and then John headed out on a program errand. The girls and I had a quick snack before making our way down the 51 steps to the street and making our way to the Grote Markt, a major stop for tourists.

On the way, we followed our noses into a beautiful church: The Carrolus Borromeuskerk, which overlooks a beautiful little cobblestone square called the Hendrik Conscienceplein. I found an exterior shot on for your viewing pleasure. It is a beautiful church, built by Jesuits in the 1600's according to my Essential Antwerp guide (AAA Publishing, 2001). The inside was also pleasant and the girls hushed their voices almost instinctively as we walked in. Soft vocal music was playing as we made a donation and lit a candle. It occurred to me that we will be visiting no small number of houses of worship on our trip, so it's not too early to practice the proper way to do so. The painting above the altar was beautiful too, very dramatic with lots of Heavenly Light. Found a picture of this too on flickr!

After our visit to the church, we crossed the square to the Stadts Bibliotheek (City Library) which has a beautiful room filled with old books and busts of famous Antwerp citizens. Right now it has an exhibit of a contemporary book binding artist's work.

We headed back out through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets that opened onto the Grote Markt. It's a beautiful square. Gilded guildhall buildings surround a large cobblestone square and in the center is the statue depicting the legend that supposedly gave Antwerp its name. The statue shows a man named Brabo getting ready to throw a giant's hand (Hant-Werpen would mean Hand Throwing, shorten it and you get Antwerpen) into the Schelde River, saving the city from the giant's wrath. JieJie wanted to see the monster's arm where the hand came from (of course) so we walked around til we saw the poor giant with the big owie.

On the way home we stopped for a piece of chocolate. I got white chocolate filled with butterscotch-caramel. MeiMei picked a chocolate bear filled with chocolate creme, and JieJie couldn't make up her mind--she is a discriminating shopper--so we helped her choose a chocolate rocking horse with chocolate nut filling.

We found our way home no problem (yay!) though JieJie's tantrum, which is still going on at this writing, began about three blocks from the apartment and had something to do with needing a Band-Aid but is really about being physically and mentally tired. Still, we can't get her to rest before a planned dinner out with the director at a local rib joint, so I'll be sitting this one out. I'd rather miss a restaurant dinner than spend the whole thing scolding two tired troupers who need a good night's sleep. Them's the's easier to do the right thing knowing we have several more months to visit these places.

Friday, January 19, 2007

First Week of School

So the girls have finished their first week of school in Antwerp, and are looking forward to a weekend of sleeping in, choosing their own clothes and exploring the city.

MeiMei still says "hmmm...what shall I wear today?" and chafes when I remind her that the uniform is waiting in the closet, but already they know just how to cooperate when we are buttoning the top button, and they want to learn how to tie the tie and sash.

Their classrooms are just right for them. We are thinking that perhaps in a couple of weeks we might even have them stay for lunch and art/music a couple of afternoons away but that's a discussion for another time.

They've made some friends this week too. One little girl likes JieJie and waits for her at the coat rack in the morning. MeiMei was holding court at her little round table this morning too.

We have found the other parents to be very welcoming and friendly. Several people have asked us about our work here and made casual parent-to-parent conversation, and we were included in the invitation to a benefit dinner in February for the school. The invitation says "wear your dancing shoes" - aha, an excuse to take advantage of the January sales! Of course, who needs an excuse to buy a dress??

Watch your step! Pavement in Antwerp

In Antwerp, as in many large cities, there are many ways to be run over in the street. In addition to cars and trucks, buses and bicycles, here in Antwerp electric trams run on rails all through the city, and they are very quiet until they're all but on top of you. As a pedestrian, it helps to know the clues that will take you and your little children safely to your destination.

Unless you like playing real-life Frogger, take care to cross streets ONLY at crosswalks and ONLY when the light is green. Motorists are quite friendly to pedestrians who are waiting to cross at a crosswalk and we haven't had too many experiences with aggressive drivers. They will wait patiently for you to cross. If you choose a corner with no crosswalk, though, it's as though you're invisible. Nobody will stop for you...some people speed up just to make the point.

And red means stop, no matter your mode of transport. Even pedestrians wait until the light turns green. We don't see too many people making their own judgment that the coast is clear.

Watch for trams! Rails embedded in the cobblestones make it pretty obvious where the trams run. On some of the narrow streets, they come pretty close to the curbs, so keep your little ones between you and the buildings. These are not good streets for gutter-puddle splashing.

Finally, stay out of the bicycle paths! On the busier streets, bicycles have their own lanes up on the sidewalk. The bicycle paths are paved with red brick or stone or asphalt and the bicycles have separate crossings at lights. There are a lot of bicycle commuters in Antwerp. People are going to work, going shopping, taking two kids to school, one on the handlebars and one over the back wheel. They get going at a pretty fast clip, and you don't want to get in their way. At corners, leave room for cyclists to get back up on the path from the road. This may mean you have to wait a good distance back from the corner!

I find myself looking down as soon as traffic patterns are at all complicated. Between the cobblestones, tram tracks, and red bicycle pavement, there's plenty to watch for.

Don't despair: there are some great pedestrian-friendly places in Antwerp. On the Meir shopping street, you can relax a bit, though there are still tram crossings and the occasional car or delivery van. There are beautiful plazas where pedestrians have the upper hand. This morning we even discovered a lovely botanical garden we hope to get back to when it's not so muddy.

With so many different forms of transport using the same roads, it could be chaotic. But because everyone generally follows the rules of the road, with a civil attitude worthy of praise, it seems to work out ok.

Side note: you may have heard of the strong storms that swept through northern Europe yesterday, causing all kinds of chaos with the trains and planes. We were spared the worst of it though we certainly felt and heard the gale-force winds I saw a huge piece of metal roof flashing lying on the ground last night, and the wind (which had calmed significantly) was still strong enough to throw the pulley on a construction crane around like a yo-yo.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


It is very windy today, and has been blustery since late yesterday afternoon about 4pm. I can pinpoint the time because I took JieJie out for a shopping excursion while MeiMei slept, and as we were making our way home from the Meir (pronounced like a female horse), a pedestrian shopping boulevard, all of a sudden we were almost swept off our feet! All around us, people's umbrellas were turning inside out and their hats were flying off and down the street. Simultaneously, cold rain started to fall horizontally. JieJie was in an intrepid mood so we laughed about how wet we were getting and arrived back at the apartment feeling like adventurers.

This morning, the walk to school was just as windy but not as rainy thank heavens. John and I relaxed this morning and then left early to get the girls because we are in pursuit of a few hard-to-find items. They don't seem like things that should be hard to find, but I'm telling What we need: extra pairs of tights for school in plain red and blue. I've found tights but they're all really FUN patterns and the order of the day at school is Tradition. (Side note: I'd like to know more about the history of the school...for a school to open here in 1940 and have a name that suggests sanctuary from war...there's gotta be a story there).

Another thing we need: a book bag that conforms to the school rules. A plain, dark color. No velcro allowed. Small enough for the girls so it's not like a big briefcase. You can tell that some of the book bags have been handed down from parent to child, especially the leather ones.

While I'm on the school topic, a quick update there. MeiMei had been very weepy about school the past two days, which is not usual at all for her. Last night we talked to her about it, insofar as she's able to articulate what's going on (after all she's only 3 1/2). She said she didn't like school anymore, that she just wanted to be back at her old school. We asked if the kids in her class were too much bigger, and she nodded, then added that she didn't want JieJie to be in her class (JJ was asleep at this point so no feelings were hurt). The teachers had tried sending her to the littler kids' class yesterday, so John and I thought maybe a switch was in order. This morning I just took her straight there. She lit up when she saw the teacher (whose sister is the teacher in the other classroom) and immediately took her hand. I asked MeiMei if she wanted that to be her classroom and you would've thought I'd offered her a room full of her favorite toys! No tears today, and the report at the end of the day was good. JieJie also liked having a room and teacher all to herself. So for now, that's in good shape. We've learned from general parenting experience that no case is ever truly closed! But it seems settled for now.

Back to shopping, the big thing we're trying to track down is a rain cover for The Stroller. It's quite common to see these things that look like giant plastic bags covering strollers, and with the wind and rain and forecast for colder weather next week, we NEED it. One shop referred us to a different shop...we'll try again this afternoon. If all else fails, I'll get an adult poncho and attach it with clothespins.

With such weather as we're having, hot soup is a great lunch. Knorr canned soups are available here and they're great--"scrumpish," says MeiMei.

Well, they're ready for quiet time to be over...not likely we'll get outside with this weather, so maybe we'll try Cinderella in Dutch.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A typical day so far

Note: I left my camera's usb cable at home and can't get it for another few days...sorry for the lack of photos.

Here's a typical day so far, keeping in mind that the university students haven't arrived yet.

6:30am: alarm goes off and it's still dark out, hard to get up. We rouse the girls and wander around getting breakfast, showers, get the girls into their school uniforms and coats.

7:45am: John walks the girls down three flights of stairs to the lobby. I go to the place where we store the stroller and wrestle it into the elevator, then meet them in the lobby, where we strap all the buckles and put their school bags underneath.

8ish: We walk 2km to their school. It's dark when we set out, and by the time we get there, street lights are shutting off. On the way, we pass shops, the former home of the artist Rubens, the national bank building (that's the one I noticed the other day with the flags) and the Stadtspark, a big triangular park in the center of Antwerp.

8:25: We arrive at the school. John takes the girls to their classroom while I park the stroller in a little alcove in the playground courtyard (all the schoolyards are within the boundaries of buildings--it's funny to look into a row of shop windows and suddenly see kids playing behind the next row of windows. For a millisecond, "kids for sale?").

8:30: The school bell rings. At their former school in Virginia, there were never bells. There was a different sense of time. Also, the girls were free to choose their own activities and stay with them as long as they pleased. Although this school uses Montessori materials, there is much more of a sense of the group doing things together at certain times. They have an assigned seat at a table rather than sitting in a circle on the floor, things like that. MeiMei has been weepy the past two days saying goodbye in the morning but we are confident she'll be ok given time for adjustment...after all, it's only been 3 days!

8:35: We head back to the apartment, sans stroller. It's great to park it at the school so we have more mobility in the morning.

9am: We're back at the apartment, having walked 4km already! There's time for the paper (International Herald Tribune), coffee, a walk, or whatever.

11:15: Time to go get the girls! We've found a little place on the corner near their school where we can get a coffee (with a free piece of CHOCOLATE) and sit for a moment before going to the school. We go in a bit early so we can get the stroller out without getting in everyone's way.

11:58: This is my favorite part! A smaller bell is rung by hand, signaling to a boy from one of the older groups to come and ring the lunchtime bell at noon. You have to keep out of the way because he comes running like an Olympian down the hallway, wearing his smart uniform complete with short pants, and rings the bell with gusto before sprinting back whence he came. The traditional atmosphere of the school inspires one to use words like "whence"...

Noon: JieJie and MeiMei come out of their classroom calling Mommy! Daddy! and we all hug. It's back in the stroller and home we go. We keep passing this place called the Tuk-Tuk Shop that sells snacks and broodjes (sandwiches). One of these days we're going to stop in and see if it's as delicious as it looks from outside.

12:30: We're home, the girls change clothes and we have a bit of lunch.

1ish to 2ish: quiet time. That's now, as I'm writing. The girls have been playing with their LeapPads and looking at books during this time. We try to keep them from sleeping...they can't fall asleep at night if they take afternoon naps and then the whole next day is, well, crappy. Or should I say crabby?

mid-afternoon: time for a stroll outside, weather permitting. We're not far from some nice pedestrian areas and we found a playground nearby that might be nice on not-rainy days (which seem the exception).

pre-dinner: tv for the girls, a glass of wine for us, and we all hang out in the combined living room / dining room.

Dinner happens at about 5:30 or so, and then the usual evening routine, some play, maybe a bath, a tv show, a movie (I found Disney's Cinderella in Dutch, French and English--bonus!) or whatever. Yesterday we broke down and bought some books because I didn't bring any bedtime stories. We got a great version of Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child, who does the fun "Charlie and Lola" series, and we got a new retelling of the Aladdin story, and finally a book called "Kleine Museum" that has Dutch words next to closeups of famous paintings--it was a Gen-X indulgence to be sure, one of those purchases that is as much for me as for them. I am reminded of the SNL skit about the parents who were all showing off their exotic baby carriers, all from Europe of course, and competing over who chose the carrier that would make their baby the smartest...anyway, it's a beautiful book and will make a nice souvenir of our time here.

7:30: The girls are in bed, little duvets pulled up to their cute little chinny-chin-chins. They sleep hard after one of these busy days!

8:30: John and I get the sleepies but have learned not to go to bed that early - too hard to sleep through the night. We stay up til the BBC News is about halfway done and go to bed between 10 and 11, ready to start again too early in the morning!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Antwerp Diet Plan

A note about diet and exercise...

Antwerp is a chocolate lover's paradise. As I mentioned before, even the healthy cereals have chocolate filling or chocolate flakes. We were presented with a lovely assortment of pralines, or filled chocolates, when we arrived at the apartment. We've had chocolate croissants and chocolate Special K.

We have also found a great selection of really affordable beer and wine (sadly, I'm not that into beer, though I will likely have the occasional Belgian white beer since it's such an institution...we even saw a man having a juice glass of beer with breakfast in a restaurant we passed this morning).

Finally, if you like specialty meats like salami, knockwurst, sausages, etc., and if you like cheese, Antwerp is for you.

Can we eat all this stuff? Well...yes, actually. And we don't have to worry too much about the consequences. Why? Well, without a car, we get everywhere on foot. Just getting the girls to school, coming home, and going to get them again at noon means 5 miles on weekdays, and that's not counting grocery shopping or sightseeing. Frankly, by mealtimes we are ravenous!

I really enjoyed a lot of the Dutch foods we had on our trip last weekend. Even the names are fun. There's a sandwich filling called kip-sate, which is basically like a chunky chicken satay in peanut sauce that you can put on bread. The girls enjoyed poffertjes (like pohffer'-chyes) which are cute little pancake puffs. Our friend R made a delicious pasta meal with spicy salami and tomato sauce. And we had stroopwaffelen, sweet flat waffle-like cookies with a yummy syrupy filling. M says on Thursdays you can get them fresh from the oven and they're still warm and gooey...mmm!

All continues to go well so far. Perhaps the novelty will wear off in a few weeks when the girls realize in a more concrete way that we are not just here on vacation, but at least once a day JieJie (the harder one to please) says "Mommy, I like living in this apartment!"

So do I. It's a great life and we are thankful every day for the opportunity to experience it. The university students arrive next week, so this is our last "quiet" week as far as program responsibilities go, but then again when the students get here, we'll have a ready supply of babysitters so we can try some of the great restaurants we keep walking past.

Monday, January 15, 2007

weekend in The Netherlands

We had a wonderful weekend in Mijdrecht, a suburb of Amsterdam, where we visited family friends. The girls got to play a lot, the grownups had a great visit, and I think we all are at the point where if we are tired, it's not jet lag anymore.

We know our Dutch friends through family connections. My uncle was in airline food service, and met M's dad years ago when M's dad worked for Martinair. My aunt and uncle got to be friends with M's parents, and then M stayed with them when she was 19 and I was 16 and we became pen pals. Who would have thought that 20 years later we'd have attended each others' weddings (in Virginia and Delft, respectively) and now our children are teaching each other new languages.

So we left from Antwerpen Centraal train station on Friday at 1:30ish. It took about 2 hours to go to Amsterdam-Schiphol station at the airport there (not all the way into town). We all enjoyed watching the scenery go by. The further we got into TheNetherlands, the flatter the landscape became. The farms are really neat, the way the perfectly rectangular fields are separated by drainage canals. Each field seems to have its own crop, but since it's winter, all we saw were sheep grazing (I take it they can't swim since they were all in one field usually).

There was no need for a club car on our intercity train (which by the way was 72 Euro for the four of us since MeiMei rides free and JieJie is still 4). Every so often someone came through with a snack cart. We liked the coffee they served, and the girls shared a "wafel-suiker" (waffle with sugar).

We arrived at Amsterdam-Schiphol and found M's husband R and went back to their lovely home, which they just built a few years ago. I will close the door on the details since we were enjoying time with friends, but suffice it to say a good time was had by all and the highlight for the girls was probably a trip to a huge indoor play-park with go-carts and a big climbing-sliding structure, as well as a bicycle/tricycle track with little working traffic lights. I won't soon forget the sight of my girls dutifully waiting for the light to turn green!

We got back Sunday late afternoon, cobbled together a quick dinner (smoked salmon and peas over noodles) and settled in for the evening.

This morning was the first full day of school for the girls. We're getting faster with the uniforms. JieJie is really ticklish, so buttoning her collar and tying her tie makes her reflexively put her shoulders up to her ears and giggle. MeiMei is pretty good about things once she agrees to the uniform itself ("noooooooooooo, I don't WANT it!").

We've learned the route to the school fairly well but we still don't leave the apartment without a map. After school, which the teacher said went very well (yay!) we stopped in a uniform shop to get a few extra shirts and a crest for JieJie's jumper. Then we had an awesome pizza lunch at 118 Lange Leemstraat, a place called Blauw Water pita en pizza. The girls had Pizza Margerita (tomato and cheese) and we had Zeefruchten (Sea-fruits) with calamari and shrimp. YUM. I would absolutely eat there again! Toward the end of our lunch, a lot of school students lined up to eat there, so you know it's good, affordable food.

That's all for now - bye bye!

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