Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My First Belgian Snit

For a few weeks now, my dry, frizzy hair has been making me crazy. Today, I finally had a snit. That's Dutch for "haircut." That's my chair->

We dropped the girls off at school and went to the Central Station to get train tickets for this weekend (we're going back to Amsterdam and Mijdrecht to visit M and R on Saturday/Sunday), then stopped into the Delifrance on the Astridplein for coffee and an almond croissant. We are becoming quite the experts on who has the best coffee, best chocolate on the coffee saucer, and best, freshest, flakiest croissants. So far The Bistro on The Wapper gets my vote, but XO near the Grote Markt was good too.

We hopped on the 10 tram to head back to our neighborhood but after John hopped off the tram, I stayed on and went toward Melkmarkt near the Grote Markt. There are some sweet little cobblestone streets tucked between the Grote Markt and Hendrik Conscienceplein where I'd seen an Aveda salon called Elements with (for Aveda) reasonable prices. They're right near a sweet little restaurant (photo at right) called Aurelia, one of my favorite girl names. I know, I know, she'd get called "areola" in junior high school. I'm being theoretical.

I showed up for the appointment and decided on a whim to tack on a spa treatment to repair damaged hair (which always reminds me of that great line in the play Proof where Claire says to her fluffy sister, "you can't make hair healthier. It's dead." Her sister's reply? "Whatever. It has Jojoba."). Little did I know I had signed myself up for an hour of aaaaaaahhhhhhh. By the way, more info is available at if you're interested.

My experience with restorative hair treatments was heretofore limited to a V05 hot oil treatment. This thing was to V05 what a Maserati is to a pogo stick. Serum was massaged into my scalp as I sat in a massage chair . Magic aromatherapy goo was wafted under my nostrils and then massaged into the frizz. To give the magic goo time to work, the salon lady-in-waiting massaged my head, neck, shoulders and back, shiatsu-style.
The lady-in-waiting (Natasha...of course) rinsed my hair in the usual hair salon sink with one crucial difference: the chair I sat in was a shiatsu massage chair. It lifted me into the ether as Natasha did whatever-it-was to my hair (who cares if it was mayo from the frituur on the corner??). Next I was offered coffee (a chocolate on the saucer...need you ask?) and a seat in the chair you saw at the top of the post. While my hair rested in hot towels, turban-style, Natasha gave my hands some sea-salt exfoliating treatment with lovely Aveda lotion to finish it off.
Next, the stylist wafted into the scene and we had a discussion about my poor hair. I had told John before I left that I hoped whoever cut my hair was opinionated, because I've been feeling wishy-washy. He was! This was no haircut. I was pruned like a shrubbery and am now sporting a European asymmetrical up-to-the-moment slightly spiky (but not frizzy) new 'do. It was lovely.
Got back to the apartment, lunch and quiet time while John went to office hours with the students, and then Adventure #2 began. We've read the heck out of our growing collection of books, and I'd just gotten detailed instructions on how to get to the central Openbare Bibliotheek (that's public library) from here. A cinch! A quick tram to the Astridplein (see Aquatopia post) and we were looking at the Chinatown lions. We popped into the Sun Wah Supermarket--gotta get back there for Chinese New Year decorations and other fun stuff--and were just about to buy something when MeiMei pulled a false potty alarm. Drat!
We found the library, no problem, and obtained a library card for five euro. In the children's section they have a shelf of English books and also lots of VHS and DVD shows for kids. We chose two VHS tapes (Pingu and Race for your Life, Snoopy!) and four books, including my new favorite, How Tom Beat Captain NAJORK and his Hired Sportsmen" by Russell Hoban, which is an absolutely silly story about how a boy whose guardian, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, thinks he fools around too much and calls in Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach him a lesson. They play three games: womble, muck, and sneedball, with hilarious results. The girls love the story and the way the boy outsmarts the stodgy grownups who think they are going to teach him a lesson.
Once at home, we watched Pingu while keeping the girls awake til 6 for our Wednesday dinner at 't Injaske. I had reservations (ew, pun, sorry) about taking them to a restaurant meal at the end of a long day, but we crossed our fingers and walked over. They insisted on sitting next to College Students, Not Mommy and Daddy, and did pretty well. They were served their dinners right away, but the restaurant was understaffed and really busy tonight, so unfortunately I had to leave with the girls and ask John to bring my dinner later because they were getting restless and the rest of us weren't getting our food. Much better though to leave before a scene, don't you think? And my moussaka was just as good later at home. I tucked the girls in and they were soon asleep. I can't believe how well they're doing. How much of this will they remember? Time will tell.
So that was today. Tomorrow: Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

It's snowing in Antwerp

Light snow has begun falling. The girls are begging to stay up late enough to build a snowman. I tried to explain that the most we can make tonight is footprints, unfortunately.

SN Brussels Airlines is having a fare sale right now from Brussels to all sorts of European destinations for 49 euro one-way. I'm trying to see whether I have any family members who might be interested in a week somewhere in April when the girls have Easter break. More on that as the plans solidify.

I may attempt to take them myself if nobody takes me up on the offer, especially considering the alternative...two weeks with no school when the weather is still iffy!

They liked staying for lunch!!!!!!!

What a great, great day. And it could have been a disaster.

We decided to try having the girls stay at school for lunch, playground time, and afternoon class til 3:30 with the rest of their classmates (nobody else comes home at 12, so they've been missing out on whatever happens after they leave). We dropped them off this morning with their little lunches packed in Princess lunchboxes from the Super GB and crossed our fingers.

What to do with all that time? First we found a new cafe, near the school, for coffee and croissant time. Nothing much is open before 10am as far as shops are concerned, so there's not much else to do but enjoy a leisurely coffee and croissant while perusing Belgian interior design magazines. Pain and suffering, I tell you. Next we took the 7 tram to the starfish neighborhood and got bread at Goossens. I love that little shop!

Then we took the 8 tram all the way to the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp ( to check it out for a JMU student tour we have planned for Thursday. It's so easy to get there, and the building itself is beautiful. I can't wait to see the exhibits on Thursday! There's a visiting exhibit from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam because of a renovation project. I noticed that they have audio guides too--I really love to see an exhibit with the audio guide at hand. It makes such a difference as far as the richness of the experience. Our group of students seems interested in seeing the cultural offerings while they're here, so it makes us all the more eager to sleuth out the possibilities.

Came back to the apartment for a while, read the International Herald Tribune, then headed to a soup restaurant in the University of Antwerp neighborhood. John had onion soup and I had a sort of cream of leek soup with pieces of salmon in it--delicious.

After John went to hold his office hours, I suddenly realized I had two whole hours to myself. Occasional solitude is essential to my mental health. Two hours with nobody calling my name...better than chocolate.

I decided to take my book of the moment, Dave Eggers' What is the What, and go to Verso, a cafe that I'd noticed as we rode the trams day after day. I knew that it was part of a high fashion boutique, and that it had a fire in the fireplace. How much could coffee be?

As it turned out, this was just the place for a languid afternooon. ( I perused the menu and ordered "Koffie Kompleet"--only 2 euro more than a Pellegrino water, and so much better! Koffie Kompleet is a cup of coffee accompanied by two Pierre Marcolini chocolates, four shortbread cookies, a scoop of the most delicious homemade vanilla ice cream ever, and a tiny cordial cup of Bailey's Irish Cream. I put a bit of the ice cream in the coffee and nibbled/sipped at my little table of treats for a good hour and a half til it was time to wrap it up.
Before I left, I decided to wander through the verso boutique itself, since I never go in that kind of rarefied atmosphere. The shirts in there cost more than I make in a semester of teaching. I sniffed the perfume testers at the cosmetics counter, scents with names like Jasmine & Cigarettes, Divine Angel, and Hotel Slut.

Took the 7 to the 8, popped into the Proost Supermarket to make sure the girls had an afterschool snack as soon as they got out, and walked up to meet them. The moment of truth had arrived. If they came out crying and clinging, the party would most certainly be over. If they had a good day, the possibilities for February and March are greatly expanded, for all of us.

We heard the announcement for "Familie Arndt" and came to the door. JieJie and MeiMei came out neither too sad nor too relieved, just normal. It was the best possible outcome. JieJie had learned to make newspaper hats today--an essential life skill!--and MeiMei had had gym this morning. They played tag at lunch recess with some kids who speak English, and enjoyed the rest of their day. We'll try it again on Thursday, which means I get to go to the art museum too.

Tonight JieJie asked if they could be sure to get to school early in the morning because that's what "her school friends" do. a good sign indeed.

I don't mean to give the impression that I'm trying to put my kids in storage all day, but really what is there to do in the apartment between 12 and 3 that's as fun as school? If they are happy there, it's probably the best use of that time, given the weather and our urban locale. If they were miserable though, I couldn't enjoy the free time it affords us with a black cloud of Mommie Dearest guilt hanging over my head.

I am thankful for this promising development.

Monday, February 05, 2007

I'm Not Pollyanna

If you have been following the notes from this Antwerp adventure, perhaps you have noticed that I tend to like where we go, enjoy the food we taste, and find most people I encounter to be more or less pleasant. I wonder whether you think I am really seeing everything around me...I mean after all, how can anyplace be this great?

I do tend to be a glass half-full sort of person by nature, it's true. And I love to travel, I love meeting people, trying new things, getting out of the comfort zone of the same-old same-old at home. I love learning new languages and turns of phrase, and seeing things from a different perspective. This time we have been given here is truly a gift for which I am beyond grateful, and I know John shares this feeling. We both loved Art Buchwald's last column...he mentioned wanting to eat as many eclairs as he possibly could in his final days, and regretted denying himself so many on doctor's orders. Life is a gift to be enjoyed, and the world is a big place--so much to see in so little time.

Do I like Antwerp? Absolutely! Would I move to Antwerp permanently? Nope. I think I like it more because I know we won't be here permanently, as odd as that may seem. It's been about a month now, so I feel a bit more comfortable making a Big Pronouncement like this. There are things that are easily dealt with for a short while that I think would begin to wear on me over time, and they're all parenting-logistics type things.

What things, you ask? Lack of elbow room for all of us, and lack of an easy way to get some mental elbow room while parenting young children. We are on the third floor of an apartment building that is a far walk from anything like a playground (thank goodness we found the school so they have a place to play with other kids!). At home in Virginia, which appears in my imagination impossibly green even though I know it's freezing cold and stark there right now, the girls can run out the back door and play in the yard while I do dishes, so we are together but I have a bit of mental space. Just before we left, big sister JieJie had gotten old enough to go play at her friend's house up the street without me along.

At home, they had dozens of ways to entertain themselves and were getting more and more self-sufficient for increasing chunks of time. In this apartment, our parent-child relationship is different. If they are bored, they call my name. If they are happy, they call my name. If they are tired of playing with their sister, ...well you get the idea. It's as though they are more dependent on me here, and on John of course, though he is infinitely more energetic and playful with them between 3:30 and 5pm than I seem able to be. The need to make sure they don't get too loud for the neighbors is always there too, though JieJie and MeiMei have really adjusted well, considering. But their "In case of boredom break glass" tactic is to screech like starving baby eagles. Yikes.

So we go outside, but still the girls have to exercise restraint. At home we have the yard, plenty of sidewalk to draw on or ride tricycles. Here we have pavement, cars, trams, buses, bicycles and lots of pedestrians to consider. Some buildings in Antwerp have nice courtyards with trees or private gardens, but the courtyard of our building is where people park bicycles and bring recycling, so that's not an option. As you know, we are going on lots of walks and other outings, but that's a double-edged sword. It's a temporary fix, but once we get back in the apartment, there we are again and they're more tired than before.

To end on a positive note (see? I can't help it), it is neat to travel with the girls, to see things through their eyes and see how people become playful when the girls are there. In the tram home today, a whole section was playing high-five games with the girls and laughing, and there was such a nice sense of warmth and friendliness.

So I am certainly not Complaining, by any means. I just wanted you to know I haven't overdosed on saccharine, if everything seems too happy-happy for you. How about this for a negative comment: there's doggie-do everywhere! It's true! The girls call out "DOG POO!" about once a minute so we don't run over it with The Stroller. I've started to guess at each dog's breed and general health by the size of the turds. Is it too much to ask to pick up after your dogs, people?!

Still, you can step in that stuff anywhere. Except maybe Disneyland. Bottom line--pun intended--the dead of winter is a tough time for parents and young children (and anybody I suppose) to be cooped up together. It will be lovely when spring comes.

5th Birthday Preparations

JieJie will turn 5 in just over a month. Time does fly. Sometimes when I sneak a peek at her when she's not looking at me, I can still see the baby JieJie in her expression, the way she concentrates when she's looking at a toy or the way her eyes squeeze tightly when she's happy. Still, she's getting so tall all of a sudden, and so grown up. The dress we bought for Santa photos is barely at her knee already.

To celebrate her birthday, JieJie had asked to go back to Samoerai, the teppan-yaki place overlooking the Steen. We know that we will be back at Samoerai for a JMU student dinner about a week before her birthday (March 9) so we are hoping just to ask for the fireworks dessert that night and do that part a bit ahead of schedule.

For the actual day, though, we happened upon a great present: custom-made princess dress-up clothes. My friend M in The Netherlands has a friend MJ who started her own business, making beautiful dress-up clothes. She has shoes and tiaras too (and she came up with the brilliant idea of renting out trunks of dress-up clothes for parties). I just placed an order for two dresses, two pairs of shoes, and two tiaras, with one tiara more fancy than the other so we know who the birthday princess is. I am sure the girls will play with these dresses long after March 9th has come and gone, and they will be easy to take home with us too. There's always that "can we fit it in our suitcase on the way home" question.

Since the clothes suggest a theme, perhaps I can find a horse/carriage ride in Antwerp just to make the whole day extra-special. Of course there will be no problem finding a delicious cake, we can get some balloons, all that fun stuff. Her birthday is on a school day too, so she can celebrate with her classmates. I love birthdays.

Our friends T and K will be here then too--they are like grandparents to the girls, so it will be so special to have them here. My parents will visit later in April and no doubt will make up for lost time as soon as they get over jet lag, if not before.

I know JieJie will wish she could see her friends from Virginia on her birthday, but it's shaping up to be a special day in a different way.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Kid Stuff in Antwerp

The girls had Friday off from school, and we stayed put this weekend, so I can now tell you about great things to do with kids in Antwerp because we've done some of the major ones in the past 72 hours. I hope the girls have had enough fun and rest that they're ready for another week of school. We know it's challenging for them to keep diving in every morning at school. They are really trying so hard, really hanging in there, so when there's downtime, we are trying to have lots of easy fun.

Friday: Pirateneiland ( play park (see last post). An easy ride on Bus 1 down to the docks that Napoleon developed long ago. This old warehouse district is being gentrified from sleazy strip clubs to upscale apartments and family-friendly entertainment, and we could see the Flemish National Ballet headquarters a bit further down.

Saturday: Aquatopia ( is a GREAT website for kids) at the Astrid Park Hotel, Tram stop Astrid on the underground. What a fantastic place! This is by far one of the best places to take kids that I've ever been to. The attention to detail in this giant aquarium complex blows the mind. As someone who appreciates the theatrical skill needed to create an environment that truly transports visitors out of their everyday experience, I was in extra awe. Aquatopia is a three-story "zoo" specializing in fish and other aquatic species like turtles, frogs, coral, anemones, octopi, and also a few swamp-dwelling reptiles (snakes and iguanas).
Admission was quite reasonable. MeiMei was free because she's not 4 years old yet. The director of the JMU program gave us a coupon from the McDonalds on DeKeyserlei to get JieJie in free, so it was just 12,45 euro for me. What a bargain! We spent two hours in there and could've stayed longer. In each different environment, the lights, sound, surroundings, and even the temperature taught us something about different aquatic biomes. Our favorite was definitely the mangrove swamp because, in order to demonstrate how fish move among a mangrove tree's roots, we got to crawl (yes, me too, on my hands and knees) through kid-size tunnels under the fish tanks and climb over giant "roots" as though we were little fish. The girls also enjoyed the coral reef exhibit and the shark tunnel, where sharks and rays swim right over your head. We'll definitely go back there.

After our visit to Aquatopia, we passed through the stone lions that mark the entrance to the heart of Chinatown, Van Wesenbekestraat, looking for a place to eat lunch. We chose the City Palace Restaurant. It was a promising sign that I was the only person of European descent in the place. I also noticed that many of the tables were round with lazy susans in the middle for sharing dishes, another good sign. Our waiter asked where JieJie and MeiMei were born, and I answered Chongqing. As usually happens, we heard a flurry of conversation near the kitchen, with the word "Chongqing" sprinkled in, and then several other waiters and kitchen staff showed up to bring various items to our table and have a look at the girls. MeiMei smiled at them and said and said "uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco!" and big sister JieJie scolded "say Ni Hao!" What a world.
The waiter asked where we were all from and when we said the United States, he mentioned things about New York's Chinatown. Had he been there? I asked. No, just heard about it from friends, but he had worked in London's Chinatown before coming to Antwerp. So he knows at the very least four languages, because I heard him speak Dutch, Mandarin, and Cantonese in addition to English, and he likely knows another dialect of Chinese based on our (granted, limited) experience.
I wasn't sure what to order, since the menu was in Chinese, Dutch and French, so we asked them to bring a variety of dim sum and really enjoyed the variety of dumplings and meatballs and noodles. The hot and sour soup was fantastic.
At one point, MeiMei leaned back too far in her chair and fell over backwards. She was startled and started to cry, and immediately several people rushed over with candy for her (poor JieJie is getting tired of watching her clumsy little sister get all these sympathy treats when she herself gets nothing for just doing as she's supposed to do). I was scolded for my negligence in letting her sit wrongly in the chair (see the China entries--this is par for the course and I take it as par for the course).
After lunch we stopped in a Chinese supermarket. I want to try to find some New Year cake to make--Year of the Fire Pig starts on the 17th! I didn't find it Saturday, but the girls found some marshmallow candy so we got that. I swear our eating habits have gone down the tubes...but when we get back to Virginia we can just say "we only eat chocolate every day in Belgium, sorry girlies!" ;)
We caught the tram home, had our quiet time, and then walked to the Super GB to get lunch boxes. Tuesday afternoon we are going to give it a try (lunch and staying til 3:30). We'll see how it goes.

John got home about 7pm having had a great day in Brussels with the JMU students. We will definitely go back as a family later this month, but he felt we'd made the right decision to stay behind.

Today we slept in til 8:30 (believe me, this is LATE for us) and after breakfast decided to try the Antwerp Zoo (, which is a block from Aquatopia, right next to the Central Station. It's a beautiful, park-like zoo, a welcome green space in a city that feels very paved and sooty this time of year...I have to remind myself that there are bare trees all around that, when they bloom, will transform the city. For now, though, most greenery is hidden away in private courtyards. From a pedestrian's point of view, it's all roads and buildings, very little sign of nature, so the zoo's green lawns and hedges were food for the soul.

The zoo is really expensive though! With the exchange rate, it was about $60 for the four of us to get in, and we wish we'd used our money toward an annual pass--it would have paid for itself after two more visits. Since the zoo is only a ten-minute walk from the apartment (like most things, actually), I could see going there just to give the girls a place to run and play on a nice afternoon. Ah well, live and learn, eh?
The zoo has an impressive group of birds from around the world, including condors, parrots, and these gorgeous owls that live in the northern parts of North America and Asia. For each species of bird and animal, the name plate also featured a map showing the region of the world where the animal's natural habitat is found. JieJie is a real map lover (she takes after John) so she loved calling out the names of the continents as we looked at each animal.
We left the zoo just after lunch time as it was turning chillier and the girls were hungry. Thank goodness for The Stroller--they'd have never made the walk home after all that fun at the zoo. This afternoon, we thought we'd try a trip to a Carrefour, which is like a French Wal-Mart. The only other Carrefour I'd been to was in China, actually. Our guide took us to buy baby supplies at a Carrefour in Chongqing the day we adopted MeiMei. (Am I the only person who thinks all these international overlaps are funny? At lunch in Chinatown there were so many interconnections I thought the universe might turn in on itself and create a black hole right there at City Palace). We hopped on the 3 tram and rode it to the end of the line in Merksem. It's neat to see the beginning of the 'burbs of Antwerp.
As with many things in this area, Carrefour was closed today (Sunday) so we let the girls play at the indoor playground of a Quick fast food restaurant (so like McDonald's you truly can't tell the difference, looks-wise anyway...we didn't eat there, just had Cokes). We took the tram back into central Antwerp and got off at the Groenplaats (Green Place) where there happens to be a Sunday afternoon flower market. For a measly 1 euro I bought a cute little primrose in a little pot that is now sitting in our kitchen window sill next to the miniature banana JieJie got from a classmate's birthday party. Next Sunday I'll bring more money--we need some greenery in the apartment.
This evening we got the sad news that John's maternal aunt Eileen passed away early this morning. She was a wonderful, kind, gracious lady. She lived in Kentucky but had visited us in Virginia and had met both girls, which we're glad of. She was 86. Our thoughts are with John's cousins M and B and their families tonight. Amen.

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