Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rainy Saturday

We went to Belgium to test drive a car and stumbled across this wonderful little playground.

Kate wasn't thrilled with the wet and windy weather.

But Will didn't seem to mind:

As we watched the kids play, we saw what I assume was a bread delivery man.  He'd pull up outside a house, honk, then walk to the door with a basket full of fresh bread.

 I wonder if he'd come to Luxembourg?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Jennifer's latest humiliation

Guess what it involves?  That's right, driving up a hill!

Every Tuesday, I go walking with a very nice group of moms from the kids' school.  Each week, one mom hosts and we explore a different trail for an hour or two, and then adjourn to the host's home for coffee and pastries (to make up for all the calories burned on the hike).  This week, the hike was near school so we started from there and then afterwards caravanned to the host's home.  Sometimes I'll ride with another mom, but this time I was on my own.  Fearing that there may be hills involved and thus, at best the possibility for humiliation, at worst, severe bumper damage, I tried to wait till I was sure to be the last one in the caravan.  I was nearly successful, with just one other driver behind me. I had no idea where I was going, my only hope being to follow the other drivers though I did have the address in my phone so I knew I could look it up on my phone GPS if necessary.

So, off we went. All was going well till we started to ascend a hill--no, a cliff, a true San Francisco-type hill sure to strike terror into the heart of every new stick-shift driver.  I was holding my breath, praying that I wouldn't have to stop, breaking out in a cold sweat as I saw the brake lights illuminate three cars ahead.  I slowed to a crawl, inching forward till the last possible second.  It was no good.  I had to stop.  As the car ahead of me started to move, not rolling back a millimeter (how do they do that????), my whole body went numb with panic.  The car behind me -- someone who knew me! the horror!! -- was too close for comfort (read:  nearer than six feet), so I took a deep breath, released the clutch as I pushed down on the gas and.... stalled horribly, the car bucking and jerking as if it were possessed.

Realizing this could take a while, I put on my hazards and waved at the car behind me to go around -- please!!!  She didn't move.  Now close to hyperventilation, I tried again.  Total failure.  I was so afraid of rolling back that I floored it, then panicked as the car leapt ahead, dropped the clutch and stalled.  My only hope  now was the parking brake, which I'd never been able to use properly despite several late-night practice sessions on steep, deserted hills.  I took another deep breath, pulled the parking brake, clutch in, gas, released the parking brake and -- I was off!  It worked!  Yes, I peeled out, leaving half the rubber from my tires on the street, but I didn't stall or crush the bumper of the car behind me.

By this time, of course, the caravan was long gone.  And I had no idea where to go.  And the poor, unwitting mom foolish enough to follow me was still on my tail.  I considered driving on as if I weren't part of the group (walking group?  what walking group?), leaving the other mom to fend for herself  but then I felt guilty.  Plus, she probably knew who I was, or at the very least she knew my car.  I'd never be able to show my face in the school parking lot again.  I'd have to collect the kids by bus from then on.  Or park three miles away and give them piggy back rides to the car.

Realizing I had no other choice, I pulled over and faced the music.  I was apologetic, she was excruciatingly nice.  I looked up the address on my phone GPS and we set off.  She insisted on following me despite my best efforts to convince her otherwise (I was the one with directions after all, so I guess she had a point.)  So rattled by the experience, I stalled twice on the way there for no good reason at all. I really don't do that anymore.  But each time I restarted the car so quickly, I don't think she noticed.  Icing on the cake, I had to borrow money from her for the parking meter.  Clearly, I am an idiot.

We walked in to the host's home to a barrage of questions, "What happened?  Did you get lost? Are you okay?"  Yes, again, I'm the idiot American who can't drive a stick shift.  All I could do was stuff a croissant in my mouth as quickly as possible so I couldn't answer any more questions.  To make matters worse, everyone was so nice, commenting that they're so used to driving manual cars that they forget how hard it is for us Americans. (Let's not implicate all Americans, here, I am sure it's just me.)

The plus side of this little experience?  I was so inspired my humiliation that (after googling "how to drive a stick shift uphill") I took the car out after the kids were in bed to the steepest hill in Luxembourg and practiced.  And practiced and practiced and practiced.  And?  I've got it now!  I started off using the parking brake 15 times in a row without stalling or rolling back, and today I deliberately stopped at  traffic light on a hill -- just for the fun of it! -- and started off without incident.  Whew!  Still, just to be safe, I will make absolutely certain that I am the last person in the caravan from here on out....

From Will

Today in Canteen at lunch, my friends, Clarence and Elias, and I said, "L'addition, s'il vous plaĆ®t" to the French chef.  That means, "The bill, please."  We thought it was funny but the chef didn't.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Things I find intriguing about our new home

The grocery stores are chock full of all kinds of delicious things. But then you see something like this.

Those are chicken feet, if you can't tell.

Then there are the spices. They have many of the same ones we have at home. But they're, well, a little different. The first ingredient in Fajita Seasoning? Curry. And Italian Seasoning? Tomatoes. Not bad, just...different.

And the cereal. They are crazy about chocolate cereal over here! I don't understand it myself, but every single type of cereal has some chocolate variety. And, yes, they're pretty good.

Then there's the wine. Where to find U.S. wines? In the "New World" section, of course! Can you imagine a U.S. grocery store carrying European wines in the "Old World" section?

(That says "Vins de Nouveau Monde")

Speaking of which, why is it that all the California wines are the lousiest wines in California? The entire section is Gallo!

Check out the "USA section" of the local grocery store for another example of erroneous perceptions of American food products. Other than Oreos and Jelly Bellies, I've never seen any of those items in a U.S. grocery store, and Walker's Shortbread? Clearly British!

Then there are all the mysterious meters and gauges around my house. I've yet to discover what this one measures. Hope it's not too important, whatever it is, since it's nearly empty!

I have been forced to notice all these meters because I recently got one of these in my mailbox:

Can you tell what it is? Not the best picture, I know, and it took me a while to decipher it as well. Apparently, the gas, water and electricity meter reader stops by and if no one is home, leaves this little postcard for the resident to fill out and mail back to the utility company. You have to find all your meters and write the little numbers in so they know how much to bill you. Strange, huh? So far I've found the electricity and water meter but have yet to find the one for gas.

On to parking. To park on the streets just about anywhere in the city of Luxembourg, you need to buy a ticket from a nearby machine. Unless, that is, you have a resident sticker from one of the city communes (neighborhoods). Then you use this handy little wheel. Just set the dial to reflect the hour you plan to leave -- not to exceed the maximum number of hours allowed, which varies by neighborhood. So, basically, it's the honor system. Can you imagine how this would go over in San Francisco?

And, finally, one little random one. This is a package of very international matches from the Swedish Belgium Match company in Houthalen, wherever that is. Matches, apparently in one of the languages they speak here (don't ask me which), are called "lucifers." Appropriate, right?

(Sorry, I have no idea why that picture refuses to rotate. I hope you can read upside down.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Around the neighborhood

Now that the weather has been getting warmer (i.e., slightly less Arctic!), I've been taking the opportunity for long strolls about the neighborhood.  I love peeking at -- no, not in -- people's windows, because everyone has such beautiful window displays.  All the homes here seem to have large windowsills, and people dress them in such interesting and unique ways.  Since these sills are often above radiators they seem to be the perfect home for plants, particularly orchids.

But there are lots of other displays too.  Candles:

Potted plants:

Crystal candelabras:

Chinese pottery:

Fat, nude psychedelic ladies warning of the danger of illegal parking*:

And my personal favorite:  

I always do a double-take when I walk past that one!

And my attempts.  First, tulips (not well-suited for warm windowsills, unfortunately):

Then, orchids:

These are doing much better!

*  In case you're wondering, this isn't just some random fat, nude, psychedelic lady.  She's famous.  

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Moving day & settling in

I just realized I never posted pictures of moving day, which was over two weeks ago now.  It was quite a day.  I have to say, European movers REALLY earn their money.  They hauled nearly all of our big furniture in through the windows on the second and third stories of the house.  Amazing.  When I commented on it, they told me it was nothing:  sometimes they need to do this on the 13th story!  I stood down below, wincing as our belongings were hauled up and maneuvered into the windows.  Truly unbelievable.

Here's the moving truck and the ladder set up outside as part of their "elevator":

A shot of the elevator taken from inside the house.  Note they had two different elevators and ladders, one going up to the second floor and the other to the third:

An action shot of something going up to the third floor:

And another one.  I don't know what was scarier, watching the items go up, up, up into the air or watching the movers try to wrestle the furniture in through the window.  This is just a picture of empty boxes coming back down.  I literally couldn't watch much less photograph most of the big pieces going in.

It was an incredible sight, and the movers were extremely competent.  I'm happy to report that everything made it in safe and sound, with no damage to the furniture or to the house.  Whew.

On to the settling in:  Since our house here is much bigger than the one at home, we had to buy a lot of furniture, a LOT.  If you know Roger, you know how much stock he puts in furniture (not truly a necessity in life), so you can imagine how much money could be spent on all this new stuff:  as little as possible.  Which is why I've spent so much time at Ikea in the last couple of months.  Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ikea, but furniture bought at Ikea is furniture that must be assembled.  Since I'm the resident assembler, I've been quite busy.  Good thing I actually like assembling furniture.  The list:

  • One TV stand with drawers
  • One four-foot tall shoe cabinet with drawers
  • Four wardrobes with doors (and hinges!) and all the interior fittings
  • One desk with hutch
  • One double bed
  • Several shoe racks
  • One table and two storage stools (actually, Will did one of them)
  • Five toy-storage bins
  • One very large bookcase
  • Several shelves with brackets
If I never have to assemble another piece of furniture in my life, I will be very, very happy.  The hardest part, other than getting all the stuff in the car and dragging it into the house by myself -- but that's another story -- was putting them together with very limited tools.  I did bring with me a couple of screwdrivers and I bought a new drill/screwdriver when we got here but I didn't have some of the basics, like a level or hammer.  So I had to improvise:

Wine bottle hammer:

Maybe not such a good idea for heavy hammering but for little finishing nails it worked great.  Having to drink a glass of wine while assembling furniture was just a nice little bonus. The bottle has to have a flat bottom, though, or it won't work.

Water-glass level:

Not perfect, but close enough.  I tried using a marble to see if it would roll on the shelf but the water glass worked a little better.

Now, all that's left is to get rid of all the cardboard...

And that's just from three toy bins.  You can only imagine how much more we have lying around!

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Last weekend, we took a little trip to Bouillon (yes, like the broth*) in Belgium.  It's just about an hour away and has a spectacular castle perched atop a hill overlooking a ridiculously picturesque little town.  We knew the kids would love the castle (particularly Kate, who adores anything remotely connected to princesses) but we also were excited about the falcon show.  More on that later.

The view from the top of the castle.

See what I mean about ridiculously picturesque?

The castle itself was fascinating -- endless twisting and turning staircases leading up to turrets and down to dank, drippy dungeons and even one torture chamber, complete with horrific medieval instruments such as the Rack and thumbscrews.  Will was mesmerized by all these, naturally, but was most interested in the machicolations, a word I confess I needed to look up.

They also liked pretending to blow Daddy away with the cannons:

Not that Kate stood a chance of getting a turn.  Look at that face!

But she got her chance on the cannon too.  Hers was a "magic cannon that didn't shoot anyone," just let them fly gracefully through the air.

Here's a shot of the town from the top of the castle.

But the real highlight of the day had to be the bird show.  They keep many different kinds of falcons, owls and scavengers (condors and vultures of some type) at the castle, and you can walk around and see them up close.  The kids loved the falcons, but I found the owls rather adorable.

Doesn't he look like he could use a good nap? I was surprised to see the owls out and about during the day since they're nocturnal, but we learned that actually they tend to nap around the clock like cats.

One of the falcons:

Will wanted his picture taken with every single falcon.  I obliged him but won't post all the photos here.  They all pretty much look like this--same cute little boy, slightly different bird:

Will also insisted I take and post here a picture of this bird.  In case you're wondering, it's eating some dead little creature.  Sorry.

The most surprising bird, though, was this giant Andean Condor.  It was massive!!

They can have a wingspan of up to 10 feet and during the bird show we actually got to see him in flight:

Note the terrifying staircase of death in the background.  (That's not its actual name, just what I decided to call it as we precariously dragged the kids up and down it to see the falcons on top of the castle.) You'd never see something like that in the States!

The show was small and the birds flew right into the audience, landing on the stone wall behind the bleachers.  Yes, even the massive condor.  He landed right behind Roger but I wasn't quick enough to get a picture.  I did get one of this cute little owl, though:

Okay, I got a picture of part of him, but these birds are fast!  And at least you can see how close they got to us.

After the show, we went down to the town for some lunch.  Since we were in Belgium, we had to eat some frites.  They really love their fries in Belgium, and rightly so -- they are delicious!  I also had to have some moules mariniere, which were also delicious.  I'm still too embarrassed to take pictures of my food in restaurants (tourist!) but I find myself wanting to do so all the time here.  I'll work on it...  The moules were really beautiful.

Then we bought some incredible chocolates at a nearby shop and walked down by the river for a while.  Here's Kate, posing as usual:

A lovely day...

*It did cross my mind that the town shares the name with a certain broth.  I wondered for a moment if it could be its namesake, but then I remembered that "bouillon" (the broth) comes from the French word "bouillir," which means to boil. Full story here.  So, no, the broth isn't named after this lovely town.  There were Lords of Bouillon but are they named after the broth? Vice versa? I have no idea...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More pictures of our recent adventures

We're slowly digging our way out from under the enormous pile of boxes, so I thought I'd post a few pictures of a recent sightseeing adventure.  We were trying to find the neighborhood called the Grund, and we thought we had but later discovered we were actually in a nearby but equally scenic neighborhood.  Whatever.  We had a good time and got some great pictures!

One of the scenic stone bridges that crosses the river:

Kate trying to spot Melusina in the river, and Will whispering to her that Melusina must be dead, since she lived over 1,000 years ago.

Kate's reaction:

But she cheered up after I told her that magical mermaids could live to be well over 1,000 years old:

Will was quite pleased with himself for having successfully tormented his little sister:

We then walked up to the Casements and got some good pictures of the incredible view.  Or tried to:

Difficult with a silly little boy and a tired little girl!

But, all in all, a successful sightseeing trip...