Friday, January 30, 2009

A Comb and A Brush, and A Bow! (not a bowl full of mush)

If you know Connor, you probably know her as our little bald baby. Honestly barely any hair to speak of. Well something in Brussels must be agreeing with her little hair follicles. This morning I looked at her head and I swear her hair grew in her sleep!!! Blonde curls are budding everywhere. So this morning I just had to pull out the silver baby comb and brush for the first time ever and try for a bow. Connor thought it was fun and kept touching her head and patting the "pretty bow"!!! She was happy to announce her "pretty bow" to anyone who would listen and seemed to skip along with an extra spring in her step. And all the boys at Music Class this morning were impressed, I could tell. We still have a long way to go before a haircut is in order, but the bow was a pretty big deal. Look at my sweet girl!

PS - A huge congrats to my friend and colleague, Carole "Nana" Johnson, on the birth of her second grandchild - a girl this time. Kennedi Skye was born yesterday with enough hair to braid....really. Wow!

Sour Cream and Salt!!!

OK - so after literally 12 times in the grocery store in Brussels specifically searching for sour cream, I found it!!! I bought several things I thought might be sour cream during my past runs - only to find out it was another version of either cheese or it is a banner day! Woo hoo!Good thing too because we have new friends coming for dinner on Sunday and I am planning to make chili. That is if I can now find beans. But will tackle that later. Now I am still in the glow of my sour cream find!!!
The other item I found at the grocery was salt or "sel" (French). I have just learned that you are supposed to put salt in your dishwasher (in addition to the detergent) to counteract the calcium from the hard water here. Ooops. How was I supposed to know that? You are also meant to put anticalcaire (?) in your washing machine for the same reason. Rumor is if you don't do these extra steps you will break both appliances and gunk up the pipes. Well, the dishwasher and the washing machine are pretty important to me over here, so I immediately obliged - hopefully not too much damage done thus far. Will have to find that anticalcaire though next time. My arms were full on this grocery run! Connor had fun with the salt. She is in to trying to pick up heavy things these days.

So the scavenger hunt of finding items over here continues. I find it kooky to have to put so many different products in the cleaning appliances, but when in as the Belgians do, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sisterly Love

This photo is of my sisters, Courtney and Julia Leavitt. Aren't they gorgeous!?!? Courtney is 22 and Julia 20. They are my father's children (technically my half sisters), yet he is no longer married to their mother. One of those complex family webs that is not easily explained; so I will leave it at that. Anyway, suffice it to say - I rarely have the opportunity to see Courtney or Julia (who live in New Jersey), so I was overjoyed when Courtney announced she had a business trip in Copenhagen, Denmark and was able to plan her flight to layover on either end of the trip in Brussels! Our very first houseguest...and such an anticipated reunion. There were of course tears at the airport on both ends. We had a terrific weekend and it was amazing that after a gap in seeing each other we were so natural, giggly, and enjoyed the comfort of each other's company - falling right back into where we left off.

Courtney arrived bright and early on a Tuesday for 24 hours en route to Copenhagen. In those 24 hours she attended a 3 hour course at the women's club with me (more on that at a later date), she helped me navigate my very first weekday driving solo, she went to the US Embassy with us to serve as a witness as we refinanced our Atlanta house (quite a process to do from abroad!), and she endured the Inauguration celebration. All on 2 hours of sleep. She must have been sleepwalking by the end of that day! But she was still so much fun to be with. Check out some of our Inauguration photos and video. Connor knows who our new president is!

Later in the week Courtney returned and we went to Amsterdam for the day - just the two of us. Kirk had a "Daddy/Daughter Day" with Connor. My favorite part of the trip to Holland was driving as the sun rose and chitter chattering away with Courtney in the car. The sun was magnificent pink and spread long rays all over the low country on the canals and waterways as we drove in over many bridges. Simply breathtaking. Once in Amsterdam we went to the Anne Frank House Museum. It is a museum within the house where Anne Frank's family hid. After that we had fun just gabbing and wandering all over. There was an open air market which is always fun and we got a kick out of all of the bikes everywhere and the canals running through the city. We did tiptoe into the Red Light district just to see - and I am afraid I may have corrupted Courtney. Whoa! Even at 1:00 in the afternoon it is much too provocative and in your face. It can't help but make you sad. For lunch, we found a very "local" place to eat. We knew it was an authentic cafe since they didn't even have a menu printed in English, only Dutch and it was brimming with families and neighbors greeting one another. The flowers in Amsterdam were spectacular. Just makes me anticipate Spring and the Tulip festivals that much more. If they are this beautiful in JANUARY what will happen in April?!

We did tour around Brussels that evening with Kirk and Connor - indulging in Belgium's delicacies - french fries, beer, and of course the spectacle of the Grand Place at night.
Finally on Sunday we traveled to Brugge (or Bruges in the English version) to see the sights of this charming town. It was a very cold day, but we managed to soak in all of the Flemish architecture as well as a visit to our all time favorite chocolate shop, Dumon. We also posed with a windmill. Which you just must do when here! After Brugge we drove to the town of Westvleteren (about an hour away) to Sint Sixtus Abbey. Here at this abbey it is widely believed they brew the best beer in the entire world! Quite a reputation for monks brewing beer in the fields of nowheresville, Belgium. They don't sell the beer commercially though - the only way to partake is to go to the cafe in person (like we did) or to call their infamous "beer line" to buy up to 3 cases - no more - which you have to then go and pick up directly from Sint Sixtus. We have heard tales of friends getting up at all hours to try to get through on the beer line, but never of success! We were going to buy bottles of the beer to take home from the gift shop, but lo and behold they don't sell it on Sundays since there is only so much brewed by the monks during the week and they need the remaining bit for the cafe to serve over the weekend. Lots of lore around that place. It was fun to go! Connor especially liked practicing "cheers"! And it started raining so it was a good activity to stay warm on a gloomy afternoon.

It was hard to let sweet Courtney go. It is fun to see the overlap in us and to feel a sister's love. Next time Julia promises to join in the fun!

Click here for Courtney in Brussels (full album)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crib Camp-Out

I have to confess, becoming a stay at home mom has made me much more conscious of my busy toddler and all the risks out there for her to hurt herself. Some of my fears are normal and justified but I think some are just from being with her so much more and seeing the way she "tackles" the world every moment of the day. Being a parent is such incredible and awesome responsibility when coupled with the immense love you have for this little life. Compound that with being basically "alone" during the day in a strange country - and I think that explains it.

In light of this we bought a "crib tent" since Connor was starting to climb over her crib rail - giving me mini heart attacks every time. I was somewhat reluctant toward the product because it seemed it would encage Connor. But she LOVES it. She looks forward to getting in her tent and goes "zip, zip, zip" encouraging us to zip her in. It is like a big cave embracing her in coziness. And I rest much easier knowing she is more secure and happy.

Hungry, Hungry Hippo?

So we have a new parenting challenge with our little angel. Her mealtime eating is becoming increasing more selective. I guess she was doomed from the start with Kirk and I both being the world's pickiest eaters as children! But now we are having to cut out most snacks and down on the drinks in hopes of a few bites at regular meal time. Ugh. I am told this food refusal is a VERY common stage. Luckily Connor continues to thrive and be very happy. Just pray for my sanity because it is so hard to try to be creative about new foods to try only to be rejected (especially with Connor's allergies to nuts and eggs). Combined with still trying to conquer Belgian grocery shopping....which will be a never ending journey, I think.

But luckily my sweet friends from home have indirectly inspired me (and they probably don't even know it). Jen Spears taught me all about quinoa - a type of grain/barley - that is wonderful, especially with some garlic and spinach mixed in. It is quite healthy and we have been able to convince Connor it is "rice" or "pasta" and she usually takes a few bites. She is definitely gaining in her quinoa endurance. AND my sweet friend, Brooke Bagwell, taught me about the wonders of chopping up and eating a kiwi as a snack. Connor LOVES kiwi now. And I can't cut up a kiwi without thinking about and missing sweet Brooke!! This combined with a love for pomegranate seeds still. So we are good with the fruit and carbs - but we will keep working on the veggies and meats. I hope this ends as quickly as it came on!

So instead of actually eating her dinner, my heart had to melt the other night when Connor insisted on tucking "Clay" into her seat and fed him!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Under the Big Top in the Bull Fighting Ring - Madrid!

This past weekend the Willinghams packed up and flew to Madrid, Spain! Funny Madrid has not been at the top of my “must visit” lists but I was pleasantly surprised at all the city had to offer. And with plane tickets at 5 euros apiece, how could we not?

We flew the budget airline Ryan Air for the first time. They clearly offer rock bottom prices, but the catch is they charge you for everything else – snacks, drinks, there are ads and lottery cards sold en route, they even charge if you want to check one bag (although I guess that is par for the course now). So if you are able to dodge all the marketing gimmicks, then it is a steal. You can only bring one 10 kilo bag as carry on. We took it as a challenge to pack minimally and avoid all extra costs. Note to all mothers who are attempting this magic trick though…don’t skimp on the diapers. We realized halfway through the trip I had packed too few diapers for Connor. So we had an adventure trying to find a place on a Sunday that was open and sold diapers (a hard thing to do in Europe where most places are closed on Sundays). We ended up having to pay 29 euros (nearly $45) for a large package of additional diapers (more than the cost of our plane tickets!) Then we had to cram the extra European-make, super expensive diapers from the gigantic package in our already tight bags to get back home. Oh well. Lesson learned!

In Madrid we stayed at Hotel Preciados near the Puerta del Sol, right in the center of town. I highly recommend it and again we found hotel negotiations reign supreme during the colder weather. We had a great time touring around Madrid as a family. Highlights included a self-directed walking tour in the early morning, eating pastries at Salon La Mallorquina, and playing with Connor on all the “moo cows” all over the city. My favorite building/place was the Plaza Mayor. It was, as our guidebook said, like a “grand palace turned inside out.” A deep burgundy colored square with unique painting, lots of cobblestones, and a “BIG neigh neigh” statue (as Connor called it) in the center. Nearby was this intriguing street with little cavelike bars all over. The caves were long and narrow. I could only imagine how much fun they were during the evening hours though – but when traveling with a little one with a 7 PM bedtime, late night partying at bars is off the table.

Some other interesting tidbits about Madrid:
--- All of the street signs in Madrid display both the written name as well as an illustration. This traditional practice is supposed to enable the illiterate to understand the signs.
--- Churros for breakfast in Madrid is considered a “must do.” We went to Chocolaterias Valor to indulge in their churros dipped in steaming chocolate. Yummy! Connor of course had all the waitresses charmed - they spontaneously brought her extra churros.
--- The public transport system is awesome in Madrid. We hopped on and off all over (including coming from the airport). We were planning to take a chartered van upon arrival, but I am so glad we opted at the last minute for the bus/metro combination. It makes me feel alive and a part of it all to conquer well thought metro networks.
--- At night all of the buildings light up with these dramatic, individual per window spotlights - lit from below each sill. It is stunning and adds spirit and flavor to an already spicy city. Makes me want to grab a fan and some ruffles and begin dancing!

I had no idea how much art was in Madrid. We did go to the famous Prado art museum near the end of the day. The Prado is free on Saturdays in the evenings. But Connor was exhausted and tired and the hassle through security was a last straw for our girl after a busy day of going everywhere, so we were only able to stay ~30 minutes or so. But I got to glimpse the Prado's art somewhat - even if in a blur. We can say we tried!

By far my very favorite was the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. This place is less intimidating than the Prado with a warm and welcoming design and layout. And the Impressionist paintings were incredible. How is it that Impressionism can put you at such ease and awe when other genres of art can be so jarring and too bold? I discovered two artists who were new and inspiring to me: Jon S. Legere and Erich Heckel. Not sure either of them are that famous, but their work seemed to speak to me – and usually I am not one to engage very much in galleries, even though I do love art. But here I was taken with the brush strokes and the evolution of art styles so elegantly displayed. Even with a wiggly toddler in tow I was able to relax and absorb the stories of the art encircling us. Connor and Kirk were so cute because while I soaked in the masterpieces they strolled through trying to find all the "Neigh Neighs, Moo Cows, and Baby Jesus's" in the paintings. It was funny because all of the museum guards in every room couldn't help but smile at them on their treasure hunt within the art.

But lest you think poor Connor spent the entire time cooped up in her stroller in art museums, there were plenty of kid-friendly activities in Madrid. We found playgrounds all over. This one was across from the Thyssen museum and we went during prime “siesta” time. Connor danced in the sunlight and delighted in the swings, slides, and sand.

Another fun activity – we strolled all over Retiro Park. The grounds were enormous with European sculptures and meticulous decoration throughout. I was wow'd for a public park. I could tell it was a popular siesta spot for many Spaniards. We settled in front of this great lake with charming rowboats and again a “BIG neigh neigh” statue (Connor loves those). There was someone playing “Oh when the saints go marching in” on saxophone in the background which was the cherry on top. Connor ran around with other children and had a ball watching the boats and the ducks (of course).

Finally, we walked to the Plaza de Toros – Spain’s top spot for bull fights. We weren’t going to attend a fight, but just to take in the memorable stadium. Well, when we arrived this is what we saw….

The “Circo Americano” was in town!!! Connor has never been to the circus so how could we say no? We will have this incredible memory to always tell her about her very first circus under the big top within Madrid’s bull fighting ring. I thought Connor was going to melt she was so happy. We went into the tent and found our seats and Connor promptly started playing with many of the other Spanish children around. She would give “Green Muh Muh” to them and then ask for it back – back and forth a million times. They of course “speak” different languages, but the connectiveness of the children was heartwarming. And what a strange experience the circus was. There were only 2 rings, but one was an ice skating rink – so this circus was more of a icecapades plus traditional circus all in one. There were trapeze artists, clowns, tight rope walkers and the very best part were the animals: camels, elephants, and ponies!!! When the animals came out Connor sat still on our laps and just oooh’d and aaah’d and clapped without taking her eyes for a second off the show. I don’t think I even saw very much of the circus, because watching Connor watch the circus was the biggest treat of all. There was a master of ceremonies (is that what they call him in the circus?) who narrated the show, of course all in Spanish. It was all over the top! And I am so glad we made that memory together! We only stayed for the first half – and when we saw them putting up a makeshift “cage wall” for the tigers and lion tamers we were glad we were on our way out at intermission. But man, if you ever come across a circus in a bull fighting ring, don’t hesitate – just go!

We also took a day trip to Toledo, Spain. This town is the namesake of the expression “Holy Toledo” mostly because it has what is considered the best cathedral in Spain and was a former capital of the country. It was the type of town where you are meant to get lost – that is part of the fun. We wandered the streets and I was taken with the glass window box balconies everywhere. I tried to think what I would do in it if I had one. People watch? Play cards? Eat meals? With all the street looking in? Hmmm. Maybe not too practical, but they sure were pretty. Toledo is also famous for marzipan so we of course had to indulge! We enjoyed the Santa Cruz museum – and I couldn’t help but to photograph the schoolchildren there on a Sunday playing some version of Red Rover right in the front yard of this grand museum.

We couldn’t resist bringing home a souvenir of a fun flamenco dress for Connor with a fan and doll. Usually we don’t fall prey to the tourist scams, but the fringe sealed the deal. We got the dress for a mere $10 from a street vendor. Olay!

For those of you who don't have Madrid on your bucket list, think again. It is a city alive with fun and festivity, art and culture, high energy combined with relaxation. And with all that in one weekend, who knows what we would do with even longer there? Thanks Ryan Air for the cheap airfare!

Click here for Madrid and Toledo (full album)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Proud to be American

Happy Inauguration Day! Don't you just love how it has become a happy holiday in the midst of so much that is heavy in the world today? Mom tells me it was even a surprise snow day in Raleigh - so what a perfect bonus for everyone to witness today tucked in at home, together and snowbound with family.

It was a VERY busy day in Brussels. Thank goodness for the time change so it was actually 5:30 PM our time when Obama took office. We snuggled in to our apartment as it started to pour rain outside. Kirk was home early and we had our first houseguest, Courtney Leavitt, my sister from New Jersey, visiting us. We cooked dinner and played in our living room amidst this oh-so-historic event on TV. How can you not be moved by what took place?

Being in Europe and seeing the "outside-looking-in perspective" of America, I am delighted for the USA with Obama's presidency. Admittedly I have not always been a diehard Obama supporter, so the power of his "change" is definitely at work in me. And I am a firm believer in providing unwavering support to our leaders who choose to serve us with their lives and passion - so that is what we are doing - with loving and prayerful hearts for President Obama's wisdom, strength and courage. One of my favorite moments today was the unprecedented sendoff of the Obamas with the Bushs. As the commentator said it was "laced with symbolism" - but when it comes down to it, it was just the right, touching, kind, unifying thing to do. I have read story after story of these new little touches of inclusion already so much a part of this presidency, which must add up to the swell of something extraordinary.

Obama's hope and optimism are inspiring to the entire world. I realize now that I live in Europe how much we take for granted in the USA and indeed how engaged and poised the entire world is on our events. We have so many freedoms and opportunities unimaginable to most. I hope and pray that as an individual and as a part of larger groups I can fulfill the challenge to work hard, to consistently give to others, and to cling to the values to accomplish successful change. With Obama's presidency I am met in political conversations with a twinkle in the eye by Europeans, not a snide remark. That must mean great unity on our horizon.

I felt it was truly important to celebrate this milestone with Connor. Something about MLK's "I Have a Dream" that children will one day play together - means that need to cling closer to the future and the promise of what is to come. I know Connor will not remember this day, but I hope through pictures we will be able to talk about how this "audacity of hope" translated to success and what that means to us all. Tomorrow we are going to write a letter to President Obama and send it to the White House to close out our Inauguration Fun. Did you know you could do that? Yep, just address it to Pennsylvania Ave. But for today we had fun with a table poster we made and coloring pages of Obama....
Just because sometimes reading words sinks in more for me than hearing them - my favorite part of Obama's speech is below. Enjoy! Happy Inauguration - go embrace freedom!

My Favorite Excerpt from President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address (January 20, 2009) - with the photos we took from our TV posted on the right side!
"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate. Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."