Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brussels Bus Tour

What should you NOT do with a 19 month old on a rainy day in Brussels? You should NOT opt to go on a city bus tour for 90 minutes! I know because I tried this – not the smartest move. It has been on my “to do” list since arriving in Belgium to take a bus tour, you know those double decker operations that sometimes have a hop on, hop off option. I thought it would help me understand this city I now call home and to not be so intimidated by the layout. So yesterday seemed like the perfect day to do this since we had nothing else planned. It looked ok outside from our windows (normal Brussels grey skies), but when I got outside with Connor and stroller and gear I realized it was raining and colder than I expected. But given we had our hearts set on doing this – I pressed on undeterred. When we got to the bus the operator said it was 15 Euros – cash only. I had 12 Euros, ugh. But he told me not to worry about it, took the 12 Euros and helped us load on to the bus. It is so strange how few places take credit cards here. And of course the ATMs only give money in 50 Euro denominations – which when you use 50 Euro bills the cashiers grumble to have to make so much change. Oh well.
Connor and I climbed the stairs to the upper level of the bus. My stomach sank when I realized the tour was via headphones versus over a loud speaker. Those headphone sets with the plug in and the channel and volume buttons were “toys” just waiting to be manipulated by Connor. As the tour got started you can just picture this mental image:
- An INCREDIBLY wiggly toddler!!!!
- Headphones with wires to plug in and unplug and buttons to push while Mommy tries to listen
- Me trying to hold Connor while TRYING to reconnect the headphones she had pulled out of the plug while the bus jiggles over cobblestone streets (like threading a needle in a popcorn popper!)
- Juice spilling all over the seat and Connor pulling every item out of the diaper bag
- Not enough snacks to keep Connor busy (what was I thinking??!!)
- Rain and foggy windows making it difficult to see much anyway
- Traffic slowing down the tour
- Only one other passenger with us on the bus – a Chinese man seated right next to us taking endless photos of random statues in the rain?!?! (My apologies to the Chinese tourist – I have become one of “those moms” I thought I never would become!)
I gave up altogether on the headphones after the first 15 minutes of trying to keep Connor safe and secure amidst the wires while listening to the recording on a moving bus. Motherhood won out. I spent the next 90 minutes singing and playing peek-a-boo and praying that the tour would end soon and deliver us safe and sound. When we made it back to our warm, dry, spacious apartment I felt like I had been through an obstacle course – but then I just looked as sweet Connor and all the stress of the past 2 hours went away. We played and ran and laughed together.
Later that night I surprised Kirk with a store-bought Bouche de Noel (famous French holiday cake) for dessert. You know we may be traveling glamorous places and having amazing adventures, but I write this to say – most of our time here is about enduring a lot of new, strange transition all the while learning the new stages of parenthood. It is fun and hard all wrapped together.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Magical Mallorca! Bon Nadal!

Have you ever been somewhere so beautiful, you just want to weep with appreciation for the opportunity to be there? I have now - after a weekend in Mallorca, Spain. Mallorca is an island off the East Coast of Spain in the Mediterranean. It is widely considered a “party” beach destination and a popular vacation spot for Europeans – I get the sense not a lot of Americans know about this paradise. Well I am unleashing the secret.
Some notable connections to Mallorca: (1) My sweet, wonderful New York friend, Deya Warren, is named for the Mallorcan town of Deia – where her parents were married years ago. We were so happy to enjoy the charm of Deia and to know the city’s beauty and the tremendous beauty of Deya herself are matched. (2) The other reason you may know of Mallorca is that Spaniard Raphael Nadal, the famous tennis player, lives on Mallorca.
So we went to Mallorca, taking off 3 hours away in Dortmund, Germany. You know us, anything for a deal and the flights were half as expensive there versus Brussels! Plus, Kirk’s company provides us with a car and free gas within the country of Belgium, so why not? We awoke at 2 AM and traveled to meet our 6:30 AM flight. Connor was an angel transferring from crib to car to plane and sleeping on cue. She was so cute because when we arrived in Mallorca we didn’t change her out of her PJs until we landed and retrieved our rental car – so she made her fashionable Mallorca debut in her white fleece jamies.
We were lucky that we hit picture perfect weather the first day when we landed so we wasted no time heading toward Cap de Formentor on the Northern coast. Throughout the entire weekend we joked that we thought we had the entire island to ourselves, because clearly it is the off season in this tropical destination. But it meant lots of room for negotiation on hotels et al and was perfect because we enjoyed all the sites solo. When we were driving to the Cap de Formentor, neither of us had any idea the treat we were in for. The landscape is so unusual and spectacular with the rock formations embracing you from above and cradling you from below. Connor of course wouldn’t sit still for any photos, but she LOVED dancing along the lighthouse courtyard with “frog” as she had the entire place to herself. It was an hour I won’t ever forget – the type of experience someone should pinch you to be sure is real - the 3 of us in paradise, all alone, and Connor skipping and shrieking with laughter.
We then went to Port de Pollenca for lunch at a seaside cafĂ© and then to the Lluc monastery about an hour away towards the west. The monastery was so serene and calming. There was what I can only call a “prayer hike” that must be where the monks went to pray and meditate that looked out over the lush countryside. I could only think about Psalm 23 with the green pastures.
If you don’t feel God’s presence here, then you won’t ever – I am convinced. Connor’s favorite part of the monastery though was petting the “kitty”!!!
Mallorca is the type of place where ALL of the streets give Lombard Street in San Francisco a run for its money with all the continuous hairpin twists and turns around the mountains (note, not a place for the carsick!) You know me and my picture-taking addiction --- poor Kirk had to keep stopping mid turn on the side of the road for me to soak it in and photograph. But again, since no one else was around this worked out ok.
We then went into the lovely town of Deia and finally to our most delightful La Vila Hotel Soller in Soller. I am not sure I have ever experienced such generous and personal service – even at The Ritz. It might have something to do with only 2 of the 12 rooms being booked, but honestly the hotel was the cherry on top of our trip – right in the central square, with freshly squeezed orange juice and lots of tickles and genuine grins all around for Connor from the staff. Soller is this incredible valley town with terraced citrus farms nestled in the most gigantic mountains with a rocky exterior unlike any mountains I have ever seen. The orchards were brimming with lemons and oranges (at this time of year? who knew?!?!) and it was all I could do not to jump in and pick them.
The next 2 days we did have our share of rain and hail amidst bright sunshine. Such is island life I suppose. We saw the Torrent de Parais in San Calobra with the bluest waters I have ever seen – even in the midst of a hail storm!
And we traveled to the enchanting town of Valldemossa – enjoying their “potato cake” rolls and the streets filled with plants and custom tiles honoring Santa Catalina Thomas on each address.
We particularly enjoyed Port de Soller where we drove to the lighthouse overlooking the bay and then on the final day – in the midst of a torrential downpour – we took in the glamour of the Palma Cathedral in the island capital city.
I cannot even imagine how magnetic this island must be with sunshine as I fell head over heels in the rain! If anyone wants to visit then know you won’t have to twist our arms too much to return. Although it is hard to know how much of the attraction was the fact that we were there without a crowd. I could go on and on about Mallorca, but will have to close this entry out. Enjoy Mallorca through our eyes!
Connor’s new words and milestones: New words include “orange” and “Adios” and “Ola” She also proudly says that the rooster says “Cock do do” (close enough) and to our amazement she is starting to chime in as we count to 10 with her --- her favorite numbers being “Two” and “Eight”!
Click here for Mallorca Full Album (a warning, there are over 200 photos - sorry I just couldn't help myself, nor could I weed out any more!)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Skipping Through London with a British Accent

I love London. It is the most wonderful city in the world. I lived and studied in London during college and my love affair with the city started then. To return to my old stomping grounds - where they speak ENGLISH and follow rules and are so very proper - had me smiling from ear to ear all week. Kirk kept laughing at me because I would literally SKIP through the city and he even said I started speaking with a British accent. Oh well! I mean who couldn't fall for a city that writes on the street which way to look for traffic when crossing, that has double decker red buses, funny phone booths and streets with names like the "Man in the Moon Passage"?!?!

We took the Eurostar train direct from Brussels to London in a little over 2 hours, going under the Chunnel. We took a "black cab" to our hotel and this cab was big enough for us to wheel Connor into the car with the BOB stroller unfolded so as not to disturb her. Gotta love the Brits! Our hotel was right near the Glochester Road tube stop. London was crisp and cool and clear. The next morning while Kirk went to work I decided that Connor and I would not ride the tube, but rather walk everywhere so we could fully soak it all in (you miss a lot by jetting around underground). So we went by some of my favorite spots - the V&A museum, Royal Albert Hall, Harrod's, Hyde Park and on and on. When we got to Buckingham Palace I was hoping to catch the Changing of the Guard. When I asked a constable (British policeman) to confirm the ceremony at 11 AM he laughed at me and said, "Not today, today the Queen is parading down the street to open Parliament!" Whoa. So we staked out our place along the parade route and because it was a cool day in December there was barely a crowd. While waiting I got more info on this "opening Parliament" - apparently it only happens once a year with all the regal pomp and extravagance you would hope for. There are lots of traditions and rituals that go along with this 'royal opening' including taking a 'ceremonial hostage' of the government to Buckingham and also searching Parliament for Gun Powder in the cellars before the Queen arrives.

So Connor and I got a real treat as first the thousands of guards/soldiers paraded the streets, followed by the royal horses (Connor's favorite - she called out for the 'neigh neighs' all day while clapping her hands!), then the Crown Jewels, and finally the Queen herself. Don't you think she is waving just at us in the photos?!?! I was so glad we had walked and happened upon it all.

Kirk met us for lunch at my favorite pizza place in Leicester Square and then it was off to say hello again to all my favorite London Haunts with Connor - the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and then to see the shops on Regent, Oxford, and Carneby Streets. The Christmas lights on the department stores were absolutely breathtaking. When we returned back to the hotel, the concierge could only laugh at us in disbelief because we must have walked at least 5 miles during my "skip" through London!

Day 2 brought more sites. We mailed in our request for an application to enter the lottery for Wimbledon tickets via the Royal Mail - fingers crossed. We walked again an absurd distance (probably 6-7 miles) all along the Thames river from Chelsea to the Tower of London - seeing this time Parliament, Big Ben, the Tate Modern Collection, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, and Tower Bridge - all before lunchtime! We met Kirk for lunch at the Science Museum - via our first trip on the tube (I caved after a morning of so much walking!) I was nervous to maneuver the BOB stroller thru all the stairs and escalators in the underground....but I found if I just approached the up staircases that it didn't take long for a willing stranger to offer to help carry the stroller up. Another reason why I love London!

That night Connor and I traveled to St. Margarets, just outside London, to spend the night with our dear friend Fiona Dickenson and her family. Connor had a ball playing with Jemima (3 years) and Gabriel (17 months). She also discovered her new favorite fruit - pomegranate - who knew?!?

Finally we traveled back to London and made a quick stroll through Kensington Gardens/Palace to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which was a lot of fun! And then OUR crown jewel of the trip was to spend our last night with Betty Dalrymple. I lived with Betty and John for my semester abroad back in 1998. John has since gone to Heaven and is dearly missed by all of us. Betty welcomed us into her house and it was like coming home again. I call Betty my "British Mum" and now she is Connor's "British Grandmum"!!! Just to give you an idea of how interesting and wonderful Betty is here are just two of many fascinating tidbits: (1) Betty has just returned a week ago from Syria where she went to Damascus and saw many incredible ruins; (2) for the past 3 years Betty has volunteered at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. She serves as an emotional and logistical support to those who represent themselves during appeals and don't have enough money to afford a barrister (attorney). Pretty amazing, huh? Betty fed us and entertained us and listened to us with focus and love.

Finally on Sat morning we awoke in England on a major Belgian holiday - St. Niklaas Day! In the Belgian tradition, Santa (or Sinterklaas) comes on the night of Dec 5, not on Christmas. Therefore all gift giving takes place on this day, leaving Christmas Day to really focus on the birth of Christ and the togetherness of family - rather than the stress of presents. I really like this tradition! So, St. Niklaas brought Connor a London Bus as we celebrated the day in England.

The British accent has now worn off as we are back in Brussels and my feet and legs are pretty achy from all the skipping - but the memory of this magical city remains!

Some new things Connor is now doing:

- Walking backwards - Connor has discovered she can walk backwards and runs forward only to walk back with an expectant look of curiosity and glee. It is hilarious!

- One memory I will never, ever forget not just on this trip but throughout Europe is how singing to Connor calms her. My tunes have been belted now in Portugal, Spain, Holland, Germany, Belgium and England and on trains in between. Wish I had a better singing voice!

- When we travel with Connor and stay all in one hotel room, Kirk and I usually have to literally hide on the floor on the opposite side of the bed from her crib as she goes to sleep. Otherwise she will see us! On this trip Kirk and I got Indian takeout our first night in London and it was quite a site to see us lying on the floor trying to eat Indian while hiding from our little one!

- New words for Connor include: "Queen"; "Belt" (as in Daddy's belt); "Cheez" for the camera