Friday, January 26, 2007

Les Waltons

We get some really interesting tv here, and I think I saw the show to end all shows on Wednesday. JieJie and I were channel surfing (given the weather and lack of playgrounds, we've been watching more tv here than at home). All of a sudden, I saw the familiar faces of Walton's Mountain, and Special Guest Star Ronny Howard seemed to be playing John-Boy's cousin.

I say seemed, because the episode of "The Waltons" was dubbed in FRENCH.

You have to understand, not only did I watch the show as a kid in the 70's (every Thursday, I still remember) but back home in Virginia, we live only about a half-hour from the REAL Walton's Mountain.

Watching John Sr. and Jim-Bob having a heart-to-heart in French as they drove their old pickup truck into town was just absurd...changed the whole feeling of it for me. All of a sudden they were spies working for the resistance. I wanted the dad to get a beret out of the glove compartment--oh, yeah, and they definitely needed to smoke.

And Grandpa Walton dispensing advice like Maurice Chevalier-Shifflett (it's a Valley thing) to little Elisabet...the children calling "allez! allez!" while they spun someone around to play Blindman's Bluff...

And of course, the final scene. I couldn't wait to hear everyone say "Bonne Nuit, Grandmama...Bonne Nuit Zheem-Bob...Bonne Nuit Jean-Homme!"

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A little shopping

In the U.S., it seems that every store is always having a sale. Every week, circulars arrive in the newspaper announcing that the best prices and best selection are available NOW or THIS WEEKEND. The word sale really has no meaning at all at home.

There was a time when stores had sales only once or twice a year, to clear out inventory before the new season's selections were unveiled. Shoppers knew that when the end-of-season sale was over, regular prices would be back for quite a while. My mom remembers that time.

That time is now, in Antwerp anyway. By law, stores in Antwerp are only allowed to have sales in January and July. This week, the last full week of January, the 30% off banners have become 50% off, and the 50%s are now 70% off. I hate to buy something just to buy something, but then again there are a ton of great stores and boutiques here, it's a world fashion capital, and if I don't buy something this week, the rest of the time I'm here I'm afraid I'll be kicking myself for paying full price when I coulda shoulda woulda. You have to understand, I can talk myself out of buying pretty much anything.

Even today, when I had time to shop, for just a moment my inclination was to shop for the girls, or read in a cafe, but I finally looked in the mirror and told myself "you are going to shop for YOURSELF today."

I had salivated over any number of boutique windows as we got to know the city, yet when I started out to shop today, there were all kinds of reasons I found not to go in and look. Can't shop in a store called Noblesse. Can't go into Gucci or any of those name brand boutiques. Can't go into a store where there are 3 clothing racks hanging like art exhibits, and a perfectly coiffed mannequin of a saleslady waiting to pounce on my credit card before I have a chance to say whoa.

I finally ended up in a department store called P & C on the Meir shopping street. I had decided to try and find a suit or at least a really nice tailored blazer/jacket, and I am happy to say not only did I find it, I actually took it to the cash register (kassa) and BOUGHT IT--and two coordinating & very very soft turtleneck sweaters to wear with it. The jacket itself is all wool, a nice plaid with lots of different colors so I can wear it with lots of things, and it fits beautifully. I'm glad I bought it, and it was a good price too --a $200+ jacket for under $100.

Tomorrow morning while the girls are in school, I will likely head to another department store called Inno and get a couple of nice outfits for the girls. There are of course amazing boutiques for kids here too, and a number of them have luscious dresses in the windows...but at 200 euro and up for something they might wear twice...think of how many outfits that money would buy.

John has gotten himself a couple of things too, and may splurge on himself tomorrow if he sees anything worthwhile. His favorite purchase is a fleece-lined baseball type cap to keep the rain off his glasses and keep his head warm in this increasingly frigid weather--it was REALLY cold this afternoon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Antwerp Bicycle Repair

Just wanted to post, if it is of help to anyone else, that a good place to get bicycles and/or stroller tires repaired is on the corner of Nationalestraat and Sint-Antoniusstraat (not far from fashion designer Dries Van Noten's Antwerp boutique!). I can't tell you what it's called, but the man who runs the shop has helped me twice now, first with the right kind of pump for The Stroller's tires, and today he put a new inner tube on the front left wheel for 15 euro and we are back in business. He is very nice, and between our broken English and Dutch and hand gestures, we understood one another just fine.

If you have time, take Sint-Antoniusstraat east, follow it as it becomes Oudaan, and then turn left/north on the pedestrian street Korte Gasthuisstraat. What a great little pedestrian district! People were waiting in a line out the door from one scrumptious looking bakery, and there were lots of other great boutiques, a tea house, snack shops, and at the center of this sort of starfish of streets, a sweet little plaza with a few of those riding toys for kids, animals on giant springs (what are they called??) which the girls of course had to try.

The tram, it should be noted, is not the greatest solution when we can't use The Stroller. Today and yesterday the girls were late to school though we left earlier than we would if we walked! The trams get caught in traffic and we waited at a transfer between the 7 and 8 lines this morning for a good 15 minutes before the 8 came. Still, it beats walking in the rain or snow.

Simple Pleasures

There are definite advantages to taking a 3.5 and almost-five year old on a semester abroad such as this one. We chose this semester precisely because it was post-diapers but pre-kindergarten, so we have more flexibility on both...ends...ok, I didn't intend to go down that road but it's there now.

Major advantage #1: They get up early. No teenagers moaning in bed at 10am when everyone else is ready to see the sights. JieJie and MeiMei are up at 7am every day. Right now it's still dark at 7, but we look forward to it getting lighter and lighter.

Major advantage #2: They have no sense of what's "supposed" to happen. These girls roll with whatever happens because they assume that's how it goes. Sometimes the other side of that coin can be troublesome...they assume we know about all this stuff and we find ourselves saying "hey, we've never done this before either!" Still, there's very little disappointment, because there are no real expectations, unless you count getting to have candy all the time.

Major advantage #3: They take pleasure in everyday things. What are their favorite things to do? They can move laundry from the washer to the dryer because these machines are front-loading and easy for them to deal with. They love to take out the garbage and recycling and they fight over who gets to put bottles down the collection pipes at the corner of our street. The bottles fall down the pipe and we hear a most satisfying crash as they break in the collection pit below. They LOVE escalators (JieJie calls them a pet name, "escalaties") and luckily those are plentiful here (we have none at home). They've been excited to learn to ride on trams, and JieJie even knows how to read the indicator lights at the tram stops that show how far away the next tram is.

Major advantage #4: They are easily enchanted. They loved the castle (Steen), the carillon that plays in the beautiful cathedral down by the river, and they remember that just below that cathedral's steeple, there is the statue/fountain of Brabo throwing the giant's hand into the Schelde River. MeiMei said "that's where the monster is!" and I said "Mommy made a mistake, it wasn't a monster, it was actually a giant." MeiMei said "you mean like a Fee Fo?" Took me a moment to realize we'd read Jack and the Beanstalk not long ago! We're still giggling over that one.

We have a great system (at least it's working so far) for the girls to help keep things picked up. With only a few rooms, we can't let messes pile up. There are three rules: keep voices down, keep bedroom picked up, and don't leave toys out in the living room. As long as all three rules are followed, they get to pick a small toy off the "treasure shelf" in our room. It has become a really big deal to pick a small doll or a coloring book, and a great heartache when that opportunity is lost, but it seems to be working. If I have to pick toys up, I put them on the treasure shelf and voila, it's restocked. It seems to be helping maintain a kind of equilibrium as far as how much they can keep up with.

Yesterday we went to a big toy store and they chose these little battery operated yapping dogs that work with a little remote control on a "leash" (cord) and can walk along the floor, wag their tails, etc. These are in addition to the little stuffed dogs they brought from home, Arfy and Woofy. Now we have Barky and Rolly. And they want a real dog when we get home from Belgium.

Monday, January 22, 2007


First off, the dollar has strengthened slightly against the euro, which is good news. When we left, it was about $1.33 to the euro, and now it's $1.29. Let's hope it continues along that trend. We were so spoiled in China, where one dollar bought eight RMB!

One issue we've dealt with since settling in to Antwerp is how to handle money. Is it better to use traveler's checks (NO--we didn't even bring them...apologies to Dad who is an AmEx retiree) or cash or VISA or a VISA debit card?

Cash...where to get it? Fortis Bank, the main bank near us and one with many ATM's throughout Antwerp, does not accept foreign cards in its ATM's. Last week, we ran perilously low on cash. We wondered how our students would access their own accounts. For a while there, we thought we might have to take a train across the border into The Netherlands just to get cash from an ABN-AMRO or a Rabobank! Ultimately, we even considered opening an account at Fortis Bank, when we discovered a Citibank ATM near the Belgian National Bank on Frankrijklei. The flip-flip-flip of currency in the machine was music to our ears! Our credit union did charge a "foreign transaction fee" as well as $1 for using an out-of-network machine, so that's the downside. Best to make fewer, larger withdrawals.

The advantage of cash is, of course, it's universally accepted. If rates are good, you also lock in the exchange rate at the time you withdraw. If rates improve, well...tough luck.

On to the VISA network. Credit and VISA debit cards are treated equally here, so it's really your choice which to use. Upside? For me, if I have cash I'm too likely to spend it. At home I hardly ever carry cash. Downside? Too many stores, including some groceries, are not on the VISA system. Also, that foreign transaction fee shows up for every debit card purchase.

For the length of time we'll be here, a new bank account doesn't really make much sense. If we were going to be here any longer, though, it would be a really appealing option, and the JMU staff member who moved here last year said it's a piece of cake moving funds around between U.S. and Belgian accounts.

Restaurant Review

Samoerai Japans Restaurant
Willem Ogierplaats 2-3
2000 Antwerpen

What a great place to take the girls! Dinners in Antwerp can extend for three hours, far too long for most children to sit still and stay at the table. BUT, throw in a little theatre, with teppan-yaki cooking right at your table, and two little girls will sit up and take notice.

Samoerai is a nice walk from our neighborhood, past the Grote Markt and around a little corner to the riverfront, just short of the Steen castle. We walked in and immediately the wait staff started to fuss over our girls, asking if they were Chinese, if they were twins (several of the staff asked that...the girls are at least six inches apart in height, but oh well!), and one staff member asked JieJie "ni jiao shenme mingzi?" (what is your name?).

We have a place at home called Kyoto that does teppan-yaki and sushi, but Samoerai felt fancier. We were taken to a teppan-yaki table and given bright kimonos to wear. It seems the kimonos help the chefs know who is in what group, a clever touch. Our tempura appetizers came in little boats with the sauce at one end, and one of the pieces of tempura was crispy noodles arranged like a little fan. I'd never seen that before. We ordered shrimp and noodles for the girls, and theirs was cooked first (parents appreciate that stuff!). Our dinners had shrimp, salmon, a white trout-like fish, and beef tenderloin, plus noodles. It was all cooked perfectly, with nice sauces on top to provide the finishing touch.

A waitress brought the girls lollipops to enjoy while the adults had the last meat course, and JieJie and MeiMei also visited the koi pond near our table a few times. Just when I would worry about them getting squirmy, huge flames would burst forth from one of the nearby tables--nothing like fire to get one's attention!

The ultimate was dessert, especially the presentation. Dessert is an ice cream sundae with some fruit alongside (kiwi, melon, a spiced pear, etc) which is no big deal BUT it comes in a little dish that is resting in a larger goblet. In the goblet is a cube of dry ice, so when the ice cream arrives, cold fog is spurting out all around the dessert, and it's quite the effect! One boy at another table was having a birthday, and his dessert had the fog AND a couple of sparklers in it as well. JieJie declared that she wants to have her fifth birthday there in March.

Good thing they'd had a nap yesterday afternoon, because it was 10:30 by the time we got home! We praised them over and over for their excellent behavior at the restaurant. If we can limit the amount of 3-hour dinners they have to endure, and choose them wisely, I think they'll have good memories of dining out in this wonderful city.

Agenda for today: The Stroller has a flat front left tire, so it's off to the Meir to find a pump. Let's hope that it just went flat and there's no hole in the tire, otherwise we'll have to take it in to be repaired.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sleepy Sunday

Last night, we had planned to go to dinner with the program director, but the girls didn't nap and as evening approached, their wiredness got to the point that I begged off and told the girls that the three of us would be staying home for a quiet dinner, a bath, and an early bedtime. They were pretty upset. John and I sat in the living room, on the other end of the hall from the girls' bedroom, and realized in a few minutes that it was really quiet in their direction. They had fallen asleep at 5pm. Oh no! Now what to do? Do we wake them at 5:45, spinning the roulette wheel of preschool moods? Or do we let them sleep, running the risk that non-napper JieJie would be up at 8:30, tucking us in at midnight?

We decided to wake them, and lucked out. The program director walked us to an Austrian rib joint of all things, called Amadeus. There is a menu, but generally people just order the ribs, which are coming out of the kitchen every few minutes or so. It's 13 euro for all you can eat ribs and baked potatoes, plus molasses for the ribs and garlic butter for the potatoes. This was the first time JieJie and MeiMei had ever tried ribs, and they each finished half a rack! They seemed to like the relaxed atmosphere (1920's/30's Hot Jazz playing...reminded me of Little Rascals) and the fact that they were supposed to eat with their hands, the protocol of putting empty bones in an old enamelware bowl. By the end of dinner, JieJie said "take me here again!"

We got back to the apartment and watched Disney's Cinderella in Dutch ("Assepoester") and they went to bed. JieJie woke up at 4am asking for kleenex for her "ruddy doze" and I thought oh no, not a cold!

But we all slept in til about 8am, then had breakfast and watched some cartoons. We get all kinds of kids' shows here, a mixture of English, Dutch, French, German, and dubbed American programs. The one that made us laugh this morning was a very Gothic French cartoon called, I kid you not, Le Petit Vampire. From the looks of it, this story is about a little vampire and his family, a mom like a combo of Morticia Addams and Marlene Dietrich and a dad who is constantly eating scarlet forkfuls of raw meat. His cat (also red) floats in the air somehow. It was tres French.

John took the girls to the Steen, a castle/fort on the River Schelde, and I had almost an hour to myself in the apartment, which was nice. JieJie's cold doesn't seem worse, though we all took that Airborne stuff just to be safe. The girls are napping now, the weather varies between teasing sun and pelting cold rain, and tonight we dine at Samoerai, a teppan-yaki place. The girls are sure to like the spectacle of dinner being cooked before their eyes.

Tomorrow is a school day, and Tuesday our students arrive, all 32 of them!

You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...