Posted in Travel

Vienna

Just after school ended here in Belgium, we took a short trip to Vienna. I was struck by the grand scale of the buildings. Everything seemed massive and ornate but tasteful. I just kept wondering what they needed such huge buildings for, but of course it was the time and the manner of expressing the wealth of the city and its rulers. My son was more impressed with the playground in the Stadtpark, I thought the Haus der Musik was really cool. The food was really good too- I think we ate Mexican, Korean, Italian, all delicious- have to admit I was not as interested in Wienerschnitzel but I’m sure it was also tasty. Hope you enjoy the photos!

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Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Getting comfortable with ambiguity

Just before I left my job at Cornell to move to Belgium, I attended a workshop that was designed for international graduate students. I thought it might be interesting because they were talking about idioms, figurative language and specific cultural expressions and how to navigate them in the United States. It made me realize how much language there is that does not fit into the formal language you would learn in a class. I am nowhere near comprehending Flemish idioms yet, but there was something the teacher said in that workshop that really struck a chord with me as I was about to embark on this adventure. She said that children pick up language easily for several reasons, including that they are comfortable with ambiguity. It doesn’t scare them or embarrass them if they make a mistake, and they are kind of used to not really knowing what is going on all the time anyway. It made we think of when we came to visit Belgium before deciding to move. We asked our son, then 3, if he understood what people were saying to him there and he said no, but in a very carefree way. And I asked “do you understand what people say to you in Ithaca?” and he said not always. Truth is, kids don’t always know what is going on, but they just go with the flow, they don’t worry about messing up or what is coming next (unless it is ice cream of course).

I made a mental note to myself that I needed to try this idea of being comfortable with ambiguity in Belgium. It will be years before I understand the language well enough to feel comfortable but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the experience. Sometimes when I am in a public place, I try to listen and pick up words and figure out what people could possibly be saying. But more often than not, I enjoy not understanding what people are saying, I don’t hear annoying conversations people are having on the tram or street because I can’t understand them! I imagine that the two people next to me are discussing the art of Matisse but really, they are probably talking about the way their dog likes to bark at the mailman. There is a certain freedom in it.

There are times when this attitude does not work so well- like when there is an announcement on the tram and everyone gets off but I have no idea why or if I will be able to get home. Or when the cashier has to ask me 4 times before I understand she wants to know if I want a bag. And there are times when I hear fun words and pick them up and use them because they make me smile, like when I bought some garden clogs and saw they were called “tuinklompen.” Everytime I put them on, I say to my son,” I am putting on my tuinklompen” and we both laugh. And of course, we enjoy saying goodbye,  Tot ziens!

Tuscany & Elba

Here in Belgium, there are school holidays for 2 weeks around Easter so I thought it was the perfect time for a spring trip to Italy. There are so many places in Italy to go, it was hard to decide but I settled on Tuscany because most of our travel in Europe has been to big cities, and we just wanted to go somewhere and relax, maybe do some hiking (as much as we could with a 5 year old). So, we headed first to the Galfagnana and then to the island of Elba.

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We flew into Pisa, picked up our rental car and headed north. We drove through Lucca, with its beautiful city wall and onwards to Barga. We stayed just a couple of kilometers outside the town at a lovely Agristourismo called Al Benefizio. The road there was narrow, winding and steep but it was worth it. We stayed in a lovely apartment in the old stables, with a balcony with the most amazing view of Barga over the valley, and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The woman who runs the Agristourismo also keeps bees and they were just getting very active with the warm days we were having.

 

We only stayed 2 days but we really enjoyed our time. In the morning, a baker would arrive with his van full of breads, pizza, focaccia and croissants, which we would enjoy on the balcony. That first day, we played hide and seek in the olive grove, then we explored nearby Barga, walking up to the castle and church at the top and exploring the little alleyways that wind through the village. We had the most delicious gelato, in cones filled with chocolate, at Theobroma.

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The next morning, we hiked from our lodgings up the mountain behind us, the hotel owner’s dog, Cookie was our tour guide. The trees and flowers were just on the verge of blooming and the air was crisp and fresh. The views were amazing, it was so nice to be in the mountains again. Cookie showed us a shortcut back down through the olive trees to the Agristoursimo. In the afternoon, we drove up to Castelnuovo di Galfagnana and explored the town and bought some chestnut beer and dried sausage to sample.

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We said goodbye to the mountains and headed south towards the port of Piombino. There we caught the ferry to Elba. The ferries are huge, transporting cars, trucks and people and even have kids play places. Since we were there in April, it was not crowded at all. Elba is probably most well known as the island that Napoleon was exiled on, but it is also surrounded by crystal blue water and a variety of beaches and small towns. We arrived in Portoferraio but our Airbnb was in Porto Azzurro so we drove our car off the ferry and headed about 20 min across the island to our base while in Elba. We settled in and went out to explore the small port town. We found many restaurants and shops a few minutes from our door and continued further to see a small beach of pebbles adjacent to the harbor, then a trail that wound up along the cliff side. It was beautiful up there, with many prickly pear cacti and flowers as well as stunning views across the bay. My son called it a “cactus forest” and thrilled in exploring the area. After a little exploration of the fort up on top of the cliffs, we headed back down for some dinner. We ate at an amazing restaurant called Tamata, which had a very tempting tasting menu but we opted for a la carte instead. N had the octopus (yes, he is 5), T had a local fish, and I had tuna encrusted with pistachio and served with crispy pork and tabasco. It was amazing. N & I shared the “sea of chocolate” dessert. I don’t know how they made the chocolate the texture of sponge (I found that  bit odd) but the fresh cream and the chocolate raspberry coral were yummy!

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In the morning we decided to hike to a beach from Porto Azzuro via the trail we had explored the previous night. It was a beautiful walk, around the tops of the hills and overlooking the sea the whole time. We found our first beach at Barbarossa and searched for beach glass and interesting rocks. Then we continued on to another beach where they were building some umbrellas, preparing for the summer visitors. A little further on, we came to a beach with black sand and all kinds of interesting volcanic rock. N thought the black sand was really cool and scooped around with joy. In the afternoon, we drove to some other beaches that were not too far away but we were disappointed to find they were dirty and seemed to be in abandoned summer resort towns. I’m not sure if things get cleaned up in the summer but they were disappointingly not kept up to their potential.

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The next day we decided to take a road trip around to the other side of the island to see what it was like. We headed first to Portoferraio and wandered around up by the fort and found the house that Napoleon lived in while on the island. We counted the stones steps to the top and wandered through some shops around the port. Then we headed on to Capo Bianco, but couldn’t figure out how to get to the beach so we went on to Spiagga Di Sottobomba and climbed down the steep stairs to the beach. It was beautiful, white rocks both large and small everywhere. The sound of the stones washing back in with the waves was incredibly soothing. N was throwing all the large stones into the waves and when I asked him why, he said he was trying to get down to the beach (the sand). I told him we could take off our shoes and go in to the sandy part and he was all in for that. Our clothes got a little wet but it was worth it.

We got back in the car and followed the windy roads to Procchio and then to Marciana Marina. The latter was my favorite town on the island. It had small shops and restaurants and a charming promenade along the harbor. It seemed cleaner and better maintained than other towns and the harbor had a curved pier that added to the beauty. From there we drove up hair pin turns and steep drops past Poggio and onward to Marciana. The views! Wow! We drove back on a different road, the SP27 which was not a large road like the others, but a nerve-wracking single lane drive through enchanting pine forest with moss covered rocks. If only there had been some guard rails my nerves would have been a little soothed. I needed a break so we pulled over at the ruins of San Giovanni church. Set in a forest with large boulders and wind-twisted trees, it was a calming site. We drove through Marina di Campo and finally found a sandy beach at Lacona and stopped to play for a bit before heading back to Porto Azzurro for some pasta.

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We spent our last day in Pisa, doing the touristy things you do there- visiting the Leaning Tower and checking out the Keith Haring mural, then got up early to fly home. Can’t wait to see some more of Italy in the future!

The Ardennes

When we first moved to Belgium and discovered how utterly flat it is, I started asking around for places to go for hikes. Well, apparently in this part of Belgium a “hike” is not so realistic- a nice walk perhaps, or a stroll, but not a hike. The place that everyone kept recommending was the Ardennes. At first I was a little unclear about what the Ardennes were- a city? a mountain range? A general area? The Ardennes is a forested area in southeastern Wallonia (the French speaking part of Belgium), including the Ardennes mountains and the basins of the Meuse and Moselle rivers. I have so far taken two trips to the Ardennes and enjoyed both thoroughly- it is such a beautiful area with natural charm and cute old towns with unique character. There are hiking trails, monasteries, caves and gardens and It is also the home to several abbey breweries. I highly recommend the area and hope to go back again soon!

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Givet, on the River Meuse
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Citadel in Givet, France
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Hiking to Maredsous Abbey
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Maredsous Abbey

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Beautiful autumn day at the Chimay Abbey
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Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Where they make Chimay)

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Jardins d’Annevoie
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Dinant Citadel and Cathedral

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Coques de Dinant
Posted in Daily Life, Travel

All the little things

We recently returned from a trip home to the U.S. for the holidays and I have been thinking about what defines my life here. People kept asking what life is like in Belgium and is it very different from home? I found that I could not say it was all that different but it is certainly not the same. Sometimes I feel like I could be anywhere doing the same things- taking my son to school, making dinner, going for walks, etc. Then at other times I feel like I am in this totally alien place compared to what I am accustomed to. I guess what it comes down to is an accumulation of little things that are different that affect your daily life. So, I started collecting a list of things I have noticed thus far-

  1. Doors- I never paid much attention to it but in the U.S., doors in public buildings open outwards, and in Belgium you never quite know which way they open, but usually it is the opposite way of which I try! Back home, this is due to fire codes, here I am not sure if those exist….
  2. Dining out- There are some great restaurants here in Gent, but I have found the “leisurely” meal here to be a bit too much (especially with a 4-year-old). Getting your food can take literally an hour or more and you must ask for the check if you want to get out of there. I kind of used to hate how wait staff would rush you to turn their table back home but I also like to get something to eat before midnight…
  3. Privacy- there are a lot of hedges in my neighborhood, and many of the front doors on the houses are on the side of the house. People like their privacy and kind of keep to themselves, though they do tend to have giant windows and glass doors on the backs of their houses (that look out into the hedge enclosed back yard of course)
  4. Weighing your fruit- in the market you must weigh your own fruits and vegetables and print out a sticker that shows the price. If you go to the check out without this, they will not weigh it for you, they will send you back to weigh it. They had a sort of optional version of this at Wegmans but that seemed more like a way to engage my son in grocery shopping than an actual necessity.
  5. Doctors- When I went to my first doctor’s appointment I was very surprised to find the doctor answering her cell phone while I was in the midst of explaining my medical history to her. Thought it was actually pretty rude. Turns out, there are no receptionists at dr. offices here, so the doctors do often answer the phone during appointments. I don’t know, I kind of like to feel like the dr. is focused on me when I go in to see them…
  6. 24-hour time- I realize that there are only a few countries in the world who don’t use this, but I am from one of them and I have not gotten used to saying 15:30 instead of 3:30. I find myself having to count each time someone gives me a 24-hour time. Makes sense though…
  7. Bathrooms- this is a big one for me- most stores and publics places do not have public bathrooms. There are some exceptions but you won’t easily find or access the bathroom in the market or a clothing shop. At home, there was always that security that there is a bathroom nearby if you need it. Plus, even if there is one, you often have to pay to use it!

Every day I notice more of these little things, so maybe part 2 will be in the future…

Posted in Travel

Road Trip!- Amsterdam

One of the ways I convinced myself to move to Europe was this idea that we would be within reach of visiting so many countries, becoming more global citizens and exposing our son to the world outside the United States. I had the notion that for very little money we would be able to flit all about Europe and have a grand time. So, after almost 4 months here I decided it was time for a trip! My chosen destination- Amsterdam! I thought this would be a good place to start- only a few hours away, Dutch speaking (which we are getting somewhat accustomed to) and someplace I have always wanted to go.

I had attempted to plan this trip maybe a month ago as a last minute thing but found the train tickets kind of expensive and the hotels worse. Seems like if you are traveling as a couple, it is no problem but with a child, the rates instantly double. My guess is this because most of the rooms are small. I thought well we can just book one for two and he can sleep on the couch- but in most places, there was no couch, just a small room with two single beds or possibly a double bed (two single beds pushed together). So, I kind of gave up the last time I started planning, but this time I was determined and to make it sweeter, some fellow ex-pats offered to let us borrow their car!

Mind you, I have been a bit wary about the driving here- no stop signs, excessive acceleration and fast braking, I could go on but it is well, different. But hey I thought this was one obstacle avoided, I did not have to wrangle with trains and could just go. This also meant we could stay somewhere outside the city, which might be less expensive and would less likely be accidentally in the red light district.

We found a cute cottage on the Amstel River on Air BnB which ended up being perfect- a lovely little place with chickens and ducks in the yard and a playground next door. The owner had bikes we rented for 5 euros and we rode into the city to explore. We biked along the dyke with picturesque windmills, visited the Van Gogh museum, took a canal cruise, chased bubbles on the Museum Plein, wandered through the 9 straatjes, ate lunches at little tiny cafes, enjoyed the atmosphere and excitement of Amsterdam.

However, I should mention that we also got stuck in a major traffic jam, making the 2.5 hour trip last 5 hours, our son had a meltdown in the mostly silent Van Gogh Museum so I had to basically run past the “Sunflowers” and the streets were so crowded that I thought I was alternately going to be hit by other bikes or trams or plow through a throng of people. My husband found this exciting, but me, watching the bike trailer behind him as I struggled to keep up, found it less than relaxing.

Being from New York, which was settled by the Dutch, I found it particularly interesting to see the names and architecture that was somewhat familiar to me. We drove through Breukelen, saw the spot that Henry Hudson sailed from, saw buildings that clearly inspired some of the historic buildings in New York. I would definitely go back and try to sprinkle in some more kid friendly activities, or find a sitter and try some more adult friendly activities J.

When we there, my son saw a tall building lit up and said “there is the Eiffel Tower Mommy!” So, noted, next destination- Paris.

Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Ik kom met de fiets (I come by bike)

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them” Ernest Hemingway

As we planned our move to Europe, we had to make a lot of decisions about what to take with us, what to leave behind and what to stick in our families’ basements for our return. Some decisions were easy- we could not use any of our electrical appliances in Europe so they were out. The twenty geckos had to find new homes. The movers warned us that our spice collection could cause a red flag.  Our car? Hmm, kind of an essential for life in the U.S., I had not been without a car since my freshman year of college and it afforded me the freedom I wanted to go wherever, whenever I felt like it. So, leaving my car behind was hard. Especially because it was originally my father’s car and the thought of parting with it was painful. What was also a challenging notion was that maybe when we got to Gent, we would not buy a car either. We were not sure if we could afford it and well, we could find a place that was accessible by public transportation… or bikes?

When we visited Gent for the first time, I was amazed by the sheer number of bikes I saw- they stretched around the train station like a swarm of alien attack vehicles. Having been injured in a mountain biking accident after college, I was not terribly fond of biking. But hey, if all these Europeans were biking around without a care in the world, we could do it too, right?

I did not own a bike back in the U.S., though I wish I had bought one back there, they seemed so much cheaper! My husband and son brought theirs, along with a trailer and a trail-a-long bike that we bought second hand. Our first couple of weeks here I fought the idea of getting a bike- no, the bus will be fine, thank you. But after a couple of weeks of missed stops, boarding in the wrong direction, constantly late arrivals and an incident with my son getting jolted on the bus and cutting his head open, I was ready to try something different. We bought an old, somewhat rusty bike off a Spanish woman who was leaving the country. Just needed the basket and the flowers and envision myself floating along a country road…

I soon discovered it to be a bit more like Frogger than that vision. First there was the actual “oh yeah, I remember how to ride a bicycle.” Then there was the anxiety- is that car going to hit me? Do I go first? Or the car? Or the pedestrian? Oh shit, the tram! Add to that, the child seat and the toddler on the back of my bike and I was stressed beyond belief. Every time I got off the bike I realized I had been clutching the handles so tight that my hands ached. I watched others biking ahead of me, and sometimes was so obsessed that I followed them, missed my turn and got lost. I discovered that even though I thought I was supposed to yield, the cars wanted me to go and if I did not, and quickly, they would get mad at me. Other times, they would speed by, not even slowing down.

I wear a helmet even though I am just about the only dork who does. I try to convince myself that the racers are wearing them so they should know something. Plus, how can I expect my child to wear one if I do not? I don’t know the statistics of bike accidents here and I don’t really want to. But I do know there is a certain respect granted to bikers here that I am pretty sure does not exist back home. Here, lots of people bike- at least at certain times of year and to certain places. At home, I never would have considered a bike a means of transportation, just a novelty.

And over the past months, I have gained confidence, learned to stick out my arm to signal a turn and go- avoiding the” you go,“ “no you go,” “no you,” squirrel in the road syndrome. My legs have gotten stronger and my ability to maneuver around obstacles has increased. I have my waterproof jacket, pants and bag. I don’t miss my car -too much. But I still want the basket with the flowers someday.

Your smile is unacceptable

This could be a commentary on cultural misunderstanding- after all, I have been told that Belgians see Americans as very fake. We are “too friendly” and despite my initial efforts to say hello or to smile at people on the street, I was mostly met with frowns and “why are you talking to me?” faces. However, this is more a reflection on the system-

“The computer says your smile is unacceptable.” Yes, this is what I was actually told on my 3rd visit to the town hall in my attempt at getting registered in Belgium. This was just one more in a long list of bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through to live here, and perhaps the most important. Getting registered is critical to your life here- as it determines your ability to work, get health insurance and a variety of other official and unofficial things.  We started the process long before leaving the United States- we got copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, medical exams, passport photos, etc. The day after we arrived, still in a jet-lagged stupor, we went to the town hall to apply for our registration. We were intentionally living in temporary housing in New Gent because the process was supposed to be faster than in the city center. Like most things here, that ended up not being the case. Within a few days of registering, a police officer was supposed to come to our house to verify that we were actually living there, but no one came, for weeks. When we finally inquired as to the delay, we found out that the police officer was on vacation for a month- and that no one was taking care of his work while he was gone!

By the time he did come to check our temporary residence, we were only days away from moving to our permanent residence. This meant we had to go through the process yet again and hence yet another visit to the town hall. So, like most visits, we arrived believing we had everything necessary to register but this time were thwarted by my smile. Yes, despite having 5 copies of passport photos I had to leave to get another taken where I sat grimly in the chair and made sure not to smile. Boy, if the Belgians could see that picture they would surely not say I am too friendly!

Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Children should be seen and not heard

We have never really prescribed to that idea, and these days in the U.S., few do. Somehow though, upon arriving in Belgium, my husband and I both independently seemed to decide that our son had to immediately and unpreparedly become a quieter child. Each visit to a public place in the first days became a constant shushing event. “Be quiet!” “Not so loud!” “Use your inside voice!”. We felt like broken records and it was not working. I kept looking around, hoping there were some other noisy Belgian children to distract from ours. Once, we were getting lunch and there was a child who spoke just a little louder than his parents and I had a moment of hope.

I’m not sure where we got this idea, that he had to be quiet- I mean the truth is our child is loud and could stand for some volume control in any country. When he was really into Elvis we even resorted to asking him to use his “Wise men say” voice instead of his “Hound dog” voice but to no avail. In Ithaca, we lived in the woods with no neighbors to bother and it seemed like other kids were loud too. People in Wegman’s would smile and laugh at his antics. In Belgium, I think we were afraid of being noticed as the loud, obnoxious Americans. We wanted to fly under the radar, not stand out and our son is one variable we can’t control in that respect.

After a few days of this stressful and fruitless effort to quiet him-which essentially equated to trying to change his personality overnight, I decided to let it go. Yes, they might stare (though I haven’t noticed that), they might even comment (none yet as far as I know). We are out of place here right now and we will be-until maybe we figure out how to get around without a car, learn to speak some Flemish, figure out what witloof are, and meet some other Belgian children. And in time, I like to believe it will come together. Our son will learn how to behave in this new culture and hopefully, so will we.