Saturday, July 16, 2011

"To Work or Not to Work?" and "Edible Distractions... "

Well, I have been seriously considering the possibility of adding to my already too-long list of shit to do, by maybe getting a job... something that doesn't involve changing diapers or praising people for using the toilet. As such, I was contacted a couple of weeks ago regarding an open position for a "cook" in the Marines' residence here in Brussels. It was a "part-time" job, which is what I am after since I made a conscious decision to stay home with my kids until they go to school (which is getting terrifyingly close, by the way). The job requirements included making dinner for 16 Marines daily and breakfast and lunch per order, as they make their way out of the house for a day of dutiful service to our country. At first, it sounded perfect, but then, I started doing the math and it sounded less and less perfect. Of course, even though it technically is part time, at five hours a day, five days a week, it felt more like full-time to me. Having to be there at 7AM each day would mean leaving long before the girls the got up and getting home at 1PM would mean I would return just in time to put them down for their midday nap. They nap for about 2 hours, sometimes more, sometimes less, so I would only see them awake for about 4 hours a day, those hours between naptime and bedtime. Ultimately, my momma emotions got the best of the decision. This time in their lives is too fleeting and since my husband's career choice has afforded me the considerable luxury of actually being able to be home with them, I think I will take advantage, at least for now.

But this whole process did get me thinking about what kind of job would actually work for me and I returned to a time in my life when I was my own boss and in charge of my own destiny-- when I was running a small, but lucrative, catering business out of my home in Northern California. Stefan has mentioned my career history to Ambassador Kennard (a good subject for awkward small talk) and he suggested I throw my name and credentials into the pool for catering embassy functions while I am here. At first, I thought: nah, I want to take advantage of being in Europe and work with Belgian chefs and learn from them and see how they handle the topsy-turvy service life here in Brussels. But now that I know a thing or two about service in Belgium, I think I might be better off sticking close to the embassy, at least in this regard. So, that's what I have decided to do: this week, I will get in touch with the Protocol Office and let them know that I'd like to be considered for future events. It will interesting to manage event planning in a foreign country and I hope it works out.

Speaking of catering and event planning, I have become completely addicted to the outdoor markets here in Brussels, particularly the huge one in Stockel at Place Dumon. I have made it a custom to take the girls there on Friday mornings, under the pretense that we are getting waffles for them. My friend, Eve, who many of you may know from her foreign service blog, has been having a torturous time trying to acclimate to an inclement post and as such, has been asking her nears and dears to share their food experiences, so she can daydream, wistfully, about life after Luanda. I was hesitant, at first, because I feel shy about touting the many blessings of life in Brussels to my friend who was posted to Angola at the same Flag Day. It doesn't feel fair, but since she asked, I did and I told her the following story about the World's Best Waffles:

On Friday mornings, I have made it my habit to go to a 10AM yoga class at my gym and then quickly retrieve the girls and run for Stockel Market before it closes, or more likely, all the goods have been picked over. Its an awesome outdoor market, open three days a week, but Friday is its best day. The produce here rivals California, if you can believe it (in quality, if not variety) and right now, the place is loaded to gills with tiny, sweet-like-candy-Belgian strawberries, all manner of lettuce (peppery arugula, lush watercress, bitter dandelion greens, little gems!), sweet, tart grape and cherry tomatoes (of course, the big mommas aren't ready yet). Its a wonderful market and has everything you could possibly want or need for your basic grocery shop, which is awesome, but the REAL reason for going there is for the Jean Gaston Waffles, literally the most amazing waffles I have ever conceived of, let alone eaten.

Now, I know you asked for pastry porn, but anyone can give you that. Who else but me can describe the way these little babies come off the iron with a perfectly caramelized exterior, having been lovingly sprinkled with extra large crystals of turbinado sugar before being placed on the hot, 100 years old iron where they are then turned constantly to ensure the perfect, crispy, toothsome outside will make way for the steamy, sweet, doughy interior. They sell them "chaud" or "froid," depending on when you plan to eat them, but the girls and I can't save them for later, so I always order "4 gaufres chaud" and hope there's at least half of one left for Stefan when he gets home later in the day (yeah, right). Then we walk through the market, talking about food and flowers and sometimes, monsters and elephants (depending on who is leading the conversation) and we will pull apart our perfect, steamy, sticky waffles and eat them bite by bite, never wanting it to end, licking our fingers of gooey caramel between bites. Before Jean Gaston, I didn't know what a waffle was. I though it was just some dried-out alternative to a pancake. But now that I know how delicious a waffle can be, I may never be able to leave this place. I wish they traveled so I could send you a bunch. They are, after all, the best substitutes for friends, family or community I've managed to find here. When I'm eating one of these waffles, I completely forget all my troubles and think that life is just perfect, if only for the five or so minutes its takes me to devour that perfect dough ball of love.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Human Class

My husband is very good at finding creative ways to put the travel rewards he earned at his last job to good use in this life. Last week, we said goodbye to the girls and hopped on a train to London, where we celebrated our fourth anniversary at the River Cafe and slept in a free suite at Le Meridien Hotel in Picadilly Circus. Then, we flew for free to New Jersey, where we celebrated my cousin Meghan's wedding to Fred Storz. The real trick Stef pulled, though, was the free First Class, British Airways return flight.

When I say that I don't know if I have been happier than I was when I put on my free pajamas and slid into my super pod, I am not lying. There is something about that seat, the way the staff trips over themselves to answer your call button, the available entertainment and the edible food that just made me feel complete and as if I may never be able to fly coach again.

I have been lucky to fly International Business Class many times in my life for my own business travel, but trans-Atlantic First Class is a completely different animal and the only bad thing I can say about it is that our flight was too short. That's how awesome it was: I actually wish that it had been a 16 hour (or more) flight. That way, I could have had Stefan over to my pod for dinner, then asked him to go so I could watch two movies and eat my "midnight snack" before having the flight attendant "make my bed," so I could get a full night's sleep. Instead, I had to rush through my aperitif and dinner, skip dessert and watch half of a (terrible) movie in order to get three hours of sleep before waking up for my three course breakfast.

Now, I realize that First Class is a bit over-the-top indulgent and I recognize that it isn't possible for every seat on the plane to be a super-pod, but experiencing this luxury really made me realize how horrendous the conditions in the "back of the plane" really are. In addition to the complete lack of personal space and the third class amenities, the flight attendants literally treat you with contempt. I actually fear asking for a bottle of water when my throat is so parched dry that I can hardly speak the words, "please... water... please..."

In addition to the comfort of the actual flight, First Class offers lounges on both ends of the flight. On the departing end, we enjoyed a small, gourmet snack and two glasses of dry Reisling (ordered from a lengthy wine list that had no prices on it), and followed up with some DirectTV on a 62 inch flatscreen and the Sunday New York Times. We got to talking to the manager of the lounge who regaled us with stories of the A-list celebrities and top Government figures who usually prepare for their flights in these lounges (If we had only traveled the night before, we could have swapped parenting stories with Matt Damon and his wife... damn!) Upon arriving in London, where we had some hours to kill before our train to Brussels was due to depart, we indulged in a shower (multi-head super-shower) and had some more breakfast (capuccinos, waffles, eggs to order and sausages) just because we could. We were so tired so we also took a nap in the lounge before heading out to the streets of London for a delicious lunch at Barrafina in Soho.

Now, the actual price per ticket for this experience is roughly $10,000.00 EACH so it's fair to say I won't be enjoying the glory of International First Class anytime soon (unless Stefan travels a whole hell of lot more and works his magic again), so I am going to continue to reflect on this last trip as one of my best and say, with confidence, that it was a worthy 4th anniversary present. Funny- we are so broke that we opted out of anniversary (or birthday or Mother's Day or Father's Day) gifts, but we flew back to Europe in a style usually afforded to celebs and world leaders. It's so typical of us- living the good life without the goods... and having a lot of fun doing it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Downward Dogs

Life in Brussels is pretty much business as usual, save for the occasional moments when I say to myself (inside my head or out loud, depending on the day I am having): Holy Shi*! I live in Brussels!

There's the usual morning dog walk, the place where we devotedly get our croissants (
Yasaki Sasushi has the best Pain au Chocolate in the city, if not the world and I am not the only the one who thinks so:, the five weekly trips to the healthclub (I have said it before, but I will say it again, Royal La Rasante is a life changer), and everything that happens in between like grocery shopping, picking up the dry cleaning, taking the kids to the playground or on a playdate with new friends. As exotic as this life may have sounded at one time (and still does to those who only know of it from a distance), it's really not all that exotic. It's life... only someplace weird you never thought you'd live without any old friends or family nearby to hold your hand through the rough spots.

And just like when you live in a familiar place, there ARE rough spots. Life is just as hard in terms of the mundane, day to day, things here as it was anywhere we've lived as a family. Money is tight, marriage is incredibly challenging, the children are demanding, the dogs are a huge additional responsibility, and housework is still detestable (albeit unavoidable).

So, what's a girl to do?

Just like I often did when I felt like the walls were closing in on me and that I couldn't handle all the things I had going on and was responsible for when we lived Stateside, I have, once again, found comfort, balance and fitness in the form of a daily yoga practice.

Unlike in the states, yoga is not THE thing to do here and you can't find a yoga studio on every other street corner. There are few studios and fewer teachers. I was baffled by this until I started to look into doing my own teacher training program (prompted of course, by seeing the obvious need for more teachers) and I discovered that in Belgium, it takes four years of active training to become a certified yoga instructor. That's funny, because in the states, most (
flakey) certified yoga instructors lose interest in teaching yoga after four years! Perhaps, that's the idea. Needless to say, I can't become a yoga teacher in Belgium. I simply don't have enough time...

Fortunately, La
Rasante has three very good yoga teachers: Sash (Kundalini), Evelyne (Hatha) and Stanislava (Ashtanga). Most of the time, I can find my way into one of their classes and avoid paying more for classes outside of the gym membership that is already crippling us financially. When I am really looking for a change in the routine, I head over to the Yoga Loft in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, which is run by a Bay-area transplant and her (incredibly handsome... did I just write that? Sorry, Stef) Belgian husband. It's a funny place- an apartment, in a mid-70's style apartment building, where they've transformed the bedroom and living room into zen retreats, complete with big-bellied Buddha statues, billowing drapes and burning incense. I recently started a 6-week Ashtanga workshop there that has proven to be worth every one of the 95euros it cost to sign up. I have managed to perfect my downward dog, warrior and triangle poses and even (and this is the big, big news for a fat, lazy mamma) managed to do a real handstand (against the wall, of course) and hold it for over a minute of intense breathing and concentration. It's an empowering way to spend a few hours each week and even more than that, it's a great way to feel connected to a community of like-minded spirits at a time when I am otherwise feeling very, very lonely.

The other benefit of this newly-stoked passion of mine is that it's paying off in terms of my physique. I have never been a particularly fitness-minded person. I don't like running, sweating, bouncing around to house music or watching myself lift weights in a mirror. Therefore, getting fit after having two babies in two years has been a challenge for me. But, doing yoga 5 or 6 days a week has proven to be just the thing to get me back to
pre-Adela weight. Oh how I have longed to be able to close the button on my pants without saying a prayer beforehand, to just simply get dressed in the morning, without trying 32 different combinations of things in an effort to hide everything but my head and hands (without looking like I am trying to hide everything but my head and hands), and to go into a store and try things on and have them actually fit (being 5'10" and a size 12 in Europe is not, like, super awesome; being 5'10" and a size 10 is little more manageable.)

Best of all, I have finally, after 4 years (next week!) of marriage, persuaded my husband to join me at a few classes. Having an hour or so, every once in a while, when we're not changing some one's diaper, feeding some one's appetite or averting a disaster of some kind, is really quite novel for us. While having these children is rewarding beyond anything either of us ever imagined, it is unbelievably hard and finding time to nurture our marriage is seemingly impossible most days. But, side by side, in perfect downward dogs, sweating, breathing deeply and just being together is a perfect, momentary escape. In lieu of counseling, or better yet, a monthly weekend getaway, I highly recommend a few sun salutations for bringing levity back to a marriage that is largely all about hard work.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hey, it's none of your Strabismus!

No one ever wants to admit that there is something wrong with her child. So, when our local Belgian pediatrician took one look at Flora two months ago and said, "there's something going on with her right eye," I was miffed and momentarily convinced that the doctor was a mean sadist who liked to hurt people. But, of course, after I pulled myself together and gave it some real thought, I had to agree that there was something "going on with her right eye." I dutifully gave Stefan the name and number of the pediatric ophthalmologist and asked him to call and make an appointment right away. My French, though getting better, still isn't good enough to navigate a hospital switchboard.

Right away turned out to be two months later, this past Monday. While we waited for the appointment, we told ourselves many stories about how this was something she would grow out of. "It's a developmental thing. She'll be fine." But in the backs of our minds, we were fearing that the something "going on" was a lazy eye or as the medical community calls it, "Strabismus."

When our Monday appointment finally arrived, we were thrilled to be able to at last dispel our fears and move on. Unfortunately, after what was the most horrendous and unpleasant doctor's appointment my children or I have ever had, we found out that she does, indeed, have strabismus. Her right eye is severely far-sighted, so much so that the strain of trying to see out of it has forced it to turn inward. Poor little peanut can't see and we really had no idea. Of course, now we know why she has refused to walk more than 6 or 7 steps before stopping, sitting down and reassessing the route. It's a bummer, but at least we know that there isn't something more sinister at play.

It's funny how life works. When I was living in San Francisco, trying to get a catering business off the ground, I doubled as the personal assistant for the former president of the International Council of Ophthalmology. He was and is one of the most well-respected and forward-thinking doctors to practice in the field. He also has spent the better part of his retirement working to put an end to preventable blindness in developing countries. You know what one of the most common causes of otherwise preventable blindness is? Strabismus. So, of course, after being largely mistreated by a very nervous student doctor who spoke badly broken English, I immediately sent my old boss and friend an email, asking him every question under the sun about this condition, its treatments and prognosis. Of course, he searched his vast Rolodex for the foremost pediatric ophthalmologist in Belgium and got us an appointment for a few weeks from now. We will be seeing the HEAD of Pediatric Ophthalmology at University Hospital Ghent (there's the opportunity to return to Ghent we've been waiting for...)He also assured me that with proper care (glasses in the best case, surgery in the worst), the prognosis for both vision and appearance are excellent.

So... now we are just waiting, for the glasses to be made (apparently, this "special" corrective lens takes a very long time to make... but I think it's just the Belgian way of doing things: very, very slowly with little concern for customer experience. That's another blog post all together, however) and for our next ophthalmological appointment. Unfortunately, I am assuming Flora will face another grueling exam in which she's held down, kicking and screaming, for upwards of two hours. While I am looking forward to having a competent doctor evaluate her condition, I am not looking forward to that.

When the glasses are finally ready, I will post pics of my little bespectacled Flora May. If anyone can pull this off, it's her.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Long Update after a Very Long Hiatus:

I mentioned in my last post (a long, long, long time ago) that I was having computer problems. Well, I still am. So, I haven't been blogging. I have gotten a few emails saying, "are you okay? Is everything all right?" I am okay. I just haven't wanted to risk permanent damage to me or my computer from electrical shock. But, of course, now so much time has gone by, I don't even know where to begin (I'd such high hopes for consistency too).

I will start with a basic update:

Well, I must confess that I'm surprised there haven't been more songs, poems and novels written about springtime in Brussels. For, it is an absolutely extraordinary time. When the grey clouds parted and the endless damp of winter gave way to blue skies, sunshine and explosive blossoms, something magical happened here... and to me.

The spring has brought hours of outdoor play-time, early evening meetings with daddy in our neighborhood playground on his way home from work, and multiple introductions to new friends- both natives and expats alike. It would seem that as they keep their coats fastened firmly closed in the winter months, so do Belgians keep their hearts. Now, with the warmth of spring, there is a new openness and willingness to engage in conversation with this sometimes shy American mother of two.

I've made some good friends and I feel like this place is starting to feel like a home. I have a much better understanding of the geography and I'm able to go places, both on foot and by car, without spending hours trying to then find my way home. My French lessons have paid off (and will continue for the duration of my time here). I'm proud to report a complete, courteous and jovial conversation with a fellow canine-lover in the dog park a few days ago. I was able to tell her the ages of both Otis and Rudi when she asked, ask about her dogs and even make a joke about the size of her 7 month old St. Bernard puppy. It is precisely this type of mundane exchange that I could not have had four months ago, when we arrived, that made me feel so lonely and isolated. My biggest struggle now is with the children in the playgrounds who steal Addy's beloved bucket and shovel. I've asked my teacher to prepare a lesson on playground etiquette so that I can protect Adela's considerable interests there without offending or mistreating the unwitting Belgian thieves.

For friends and family who are interested, I have this to say about my lovely children:

Adela is a star. She's funny, kind and agreeable these days. Her vocabulary has exploded to include such benign expletives as, "Oh my gosh!" and "oh, goodness, mommy!" Somehow, against all the odds, she's not using her parents' preferred expletives and expressing herself in ways that would get us booted from English-speaking playgrounds. She's very tall and very lean (her waist is smaller than her sister's, but more on that in a moment). She makes me incredibly proud everyday because she is unassuming in her interactions with other children, deferential to her little sister and quick-witted in her exchanges with me. I couldn't ask for a better two and a half year old.

Flora is our demure flower. Notice I didn't say: "demure, little flower." She's enormous. I mean that in the nicest, most loving way. She weighs nearly 28 lbs., 9 more than Addy at the same age. She's wearing clothes cut for a two year old. She has a voracious appetite. She also is utterly charming and easy-going. I am so grateful for her even temper, because mothering two such young children is no easy task. She makes very few demands of me, but stands her ground all the same. She literally stands her ground, but is not yet walking. I'm guessing this has something to do with her size (although she's hardly behind the average age, she is behind her two, little embassy pals who are the same age). I probably could work harder to get her to walk, but I'm really in no rush. They grow up way too fast on their own. No need to push it along any faster.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Belated Birthday to My Little Flower:

Flora celebrated her first birthday while we were in Austria. So, there was no big party, no bells and whistles, no big presents. It was just us- Mommy, Daddy, Sissy, Kerstin, Puppa and the "boys." Adela had a big, first birthday party with ALL the bells and whistles, so I feel a little sad that we didn't do the same for Flora. She would have no memory of the party (and neither does Adela), but I know she's going to put it together someday, when she's looking through old pictures (or reading this blog). She'll see the big "hurrah" her sister had and how she was surrounded by a huge group of friends of family and how she ate cupcakes that I made with my bare hands. I really hope when Flora looks back, she knows that she only missed the party and that she was no less loved on her first first birthday.

Flora is the world's most easy-going child (and I used to say that about her older sister, but I was wrong. I hadn't met Flora yet). If she ever complains, it's for a darn good reason. The rest of the time, she's happy to laugh at life and take what she gets with gratitude. She's just a doll and I am so grateful to have her shiny, happy spirit to keep things in perspective when her sister is wreaking havoc on me and my surroundings. So, Flora, if you're reading this, 25 years from now, I hope you're not still working out your sibling rivalry issues and I hope you're not pissed that we didn't throw you a first birthday party (or a Christening party). You are so very loved-- I think of you as I close my eyes at night and as soon as I wake up in the morning. If Addy is my clone, then you are my foil, which is arguably more important. The first year I had you in my life was the best yet. I love you. Happy Birthday!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Our First Ever "Family" Ski Trip, Part 1: Introduction and Overview

I have been having a hard time writing this blog. First, I am having major computer problems these days. My beloved MacBook Pro is no longer holding a charge and occasionally, packs a rather forceful electrical shock. Second, with all that's happening in Japan, I feel like talking about my awesome, middle-class ski vacation is a little insensitive. And finally, a big part of me feels like I should be writing about the fact that Congress wants to take food and toys away from my children because that's a truly "hot topic."

But, right now, my computer isn't giving me electroshock therapy. My perspective on the Japan disaster is probably of little interest to you and I know there are people and bloggers out there who are much better equipped to handle the subject of Congressional budget cuts and how they will impact those of us in the Foreign Service. So, here goes:

Our First Ever "Family" Ski Vacation, Part 1 (Introduction and Overview):

Last week, the Whitneys packed up the whole clan and headed for the Austrian Alps for a week of skiing (snowboarding) and family fun. We left Brussels with the car packed full of babies, dogs, skis, snowboards and all the clothes and toys we need to get through 10 days without access to laundry (brother!). We picked up "Puppa" (Stefan's aunt, Henriette, and our saintly babysitter on the trip) in Bonn and then continued through Munich, where we grabbed Kerstin (Stef's cousin, Puppa's daughter). 8 1/2 hours and several tantrums and pee breaks later, we made it to Mayrhofen, Austria- a little Tyrolean village in the valley surrounded by giant, craggily, snow-covered peaks.

I have skied (snowboarded) all over the Rocky Mountains and the East Coast, but I had never been to the Alps before and had, of course, always wanted to go. It turned out to be everything I had always dreamed it would be. While the ski conditions weren't the best I have ever experienced (it's been warm and there hasn't been a ton of precipitation), the charm of the villages, the breath-taking vistas and the divine Austrian fare made up for that 10-fold. The trip was so incredibly interesting that I decided to break my blogging about it into three parts ("Introduction and Overview", "Tyrolean Cuisine", and "Lessons Learned While Traveling with the Whole Family").

"The View From the Top" (taken from the tippy-top of the Hintertuxer Gletscher, one of the three ski resorts we hit while staying in Mayrhofen):

"The Whole Crew" (minus the dogs, eating dinner in the Neue Post Hotel Restaurant):

"Happy Again" (Stef and I are never happier than when we are skiing and snowboarding together):

The Skiiers (Kerstin, Stef and I were able to ski 5 out of 6 days thanks to Puppa's willingness to hang with the toddlers):

Action Shot (Mommy, the "shredder"):

Action Shot (Daddy catching some "air"):

"Someday..." (Flora and Addy trying on our "Brain-buckets"):

Addy and I on our terrace, enjoying the view:

Just one of the death-defying rides up to the top of the mountain:

Riding up to the top with 30 other enthusiasts:

So, that's "Part 1." Stayed tuned for Parts 2 and 3. I gotta run; my computer is telling me so.