Monday, March 30, 2009

Belgian Kids Consignment Sales

On Sunday I volunteered all day a Kid's Consignment Clothes Sale. It is hosted by the Brussels Childhood Trust (BCT) and in exchange for working 6 hours at the sale you get the whopping prize of shopping in the "Helpers Shop" before the sale starts. This means you can usually find the good items at the good prices without the good gracious crowds!

It actually was a worthwhile experience. Met new friends and kept my mind sharp as I was assigned to work at one of the cash registers (or the "till" as is known here). But unlike the very sophisticated sales in the States, this sale had none of the cash register or barcoding technology. I sat with a partner while she called out a seller number and a price for each item being bought for each buyer. I transcribed them on a pad of paper in organized lists and then had to total up one by one with a solar calculator. The calculator kept freezing up when folks walked in front of the nearby windows, thereby blocking the light. Keep in mind most people buy on average 35-50 items at these sales (why not, the prices are so cheap!) so that makes for a lot of numbers! By the end of the 4 hour sale my eyes were crossed and blurry. I hope the event was a success. I sold some of Connor's things and earned about 60 euros as a seller - exactly what I ended up spending on my 30 nearly new items! I hear the line and onslaught entrance when the doors opened was madness with elbows thrown and clothes everywhere. It cracks me up what grown women will do for used children's clothes.

I do admit though to a little thrill in picking out nearly new clothes at prices less than 1 or 2 Euros. I bought a lot of frilly girl dresses that were just too cute to resist. Who knows if it will ever be warm enough to wear the sleeveless ones, but they were such a bargain and Mom thinks they look uniquely European (yeah!). Connor especially loved the blue tulip sunhat and the colorful ruffle skirt. She enjoyed modeling those while in her PJs along with the polka dot jacket I brought home. What a fashion statement! But I also found myself buying some "boy stuff" - cars and trucks and a bag full of plastic lizards and snakes. It must be the Uncle El and the Cousin David in me coming out! Since most of Connor's friends are boys, I think the boy toys are influencing her preferences.
When I found these 2 little costumes, I couldn't resist. There is one fireman and one policeman - both with matching hats. They Velcro in the back and are lots of fun to run around in. Brady, when can you come over to play cops and fight fires with me?Oh, and last but not least. Connor and Kirk had a terrific daddy-daughter day while I was consigning clothes. They played at the playground and all over the house. When I got home they were eating pasta and peas - Connor's favorite.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

We of course think we have the perfect little angel. As all proud parents do. But we are seeing toddler toughies coming through as Connor develops an independent mind. Her favorite words these days: "Mine, mine, mine!" Everything is her's. My toy, my cookie, my chair. Even my water! As in "my bathwater" (implied: I don't want to get out of the tub yet!!!!) She proclaims her contrariness with such conviction and purpose. Very cute but very challenging all at the same time.

It is intriguing to watch her little personality at work. Luckily the famous parenting tip of distraction works wonders, most of the time. It is all about knowing the priority and hierarchy of different items and knowing how to use them to your advantage. I do sometimes worry that bribing and distracting children isn't the same as just insisting they learn tough lessons and cry it out, but for now we take it one day at a time. And since we will be hosting our BCT Playgroup tomorrow morning, I will have to put away our very favorite toys (like the small plastic stroller) to avoid too big of a case of the "Mines" with the other children.

Daylight Savings

We are 3 weeks behind in our adoption of Daylight Savings over here. Or maybe it is just that the USA went early. Our changeover just happened last Saturday (2 nights ago). Anyway, we are right now living the second night of brightness. It usually makes me elated to have so much more daylight and blue sky to play in. The air of freedom and the knock of summer are just what the doctor ordered.

But unfortunately, we have had a tiny con to this most recent "spring forward." Connor is all off kilter. It amazes me that the child can handle the 6 hour time zone changes no problem as we crisscross the Atlantic, yet shift an hour and she doesn't bounce back as easily. Especially if it now means light streaming into her room at bedtime. The past two nights have been unsettling as she usually makes nary a peep and falls asleep. But she has been rustling about and calls for us - loudly. I will indulge her twice - go in and rub her back and tell her to sleep - and then she is on her own. Luckily that is usually what it takes. I should be on the lookout for a blackout shade to hide the light, but I think maybe just time and routine will ease the adjustment, I hope! On the flip side a later wake up call isn't such a bad thing.

Opening Doors!

We are in as we knew it is changing in our little apartment!
Connor has learned to open doors.
She has known how for a while but luckily the European door handles were much taller in our apartment than back in Atlanta. We would just close all the doors and let her scamper up and down the hall and living room.
But the other day I heard a door open. I skadaddled over and Connor was looking sheepish as she opened the closet/pantry. And then yesterday I followed her to find her with the door closed behind her in our bedroom. Uh oh. Her little mind is just so curious and her legs so long (to climb up on things - like our bed!) so she does require a level of constant supervision. I need to always know where she is to anticipate her next feat. So now I am either on the hunt for something to childproof all of our doors, or we are in for some interesting days ahead! All those tall genes she got from Kirk are really starting to be put to work.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tights and Laundry

I admit it. I really wanted a little girl. If and when more children come I am happy with whatever God wants to give us. But I was anxious to be sure the Willingham genes could actually produce a girl after Carol's 4 boys. I love Connor to pieces and would of course have loved a boy equally so. But one of the perks of girls is that they just have the cutest clothes. My newest little girl obsession is tights. I love pink tights, multicolored tights, any tights at all. What a fun and frivolous accessory! They don't have to match exactly, but they add the perfect POP to an outfit. Especially in the boring cold weather.

I took these photos as I was doing the piles of laundry one day. There is something rewarding about folding and putting away clean laundry. Before moving here we always did our laundry separately. Kirk did his and me, mine. Here it is all mixed in together. I must say though, matching men's black dress socks is quite a challenge. You can see from the photo below that I am usually a champ at the clothes, but matching socks in my downfall! I let them pile up til we get desperate.

Sucre Sale

On Friday mornings after music class, the moms and babes in our group head across the street to a great cafe, Sucre Sale. These were the very first women to take me under wing and help me navigate in a strange and unfamiliar world. Nikki, Cierra, Hariet, and Hesun have become dear friends and I relish our Friday coffees together. All of them have roots in Great Britain or Ireland, but are living here temporarily. And 3 of the 4 are now pregnant with their second babies and all due this summer!Every week we traipse into Sucre Sale with 5 huge strollers and 5 busy toddlers (and 5 chatty moms). We always had the impression that the staff cringed when they saw us coming and drew straws as to who would have to wait our table. But they have a terrific back room area with 2 high chairs so it really is an ideal spot. It never fails that we ALWAYS order the same thing every week. Orange juices all around and croissants for the little ones! And every week it takes an eternity for the juices to come. Since it is freshly-squeezed on the spot our waiter (same guy every time, he must always get the short straw) has to muscle through to crank out so much juice in one sitting. He usually brings it to us exhausted and sore from all the squeezing! He does seem pretty good natured about it though; he is a handsome, 20-something with a twinkle in his eye and a soft heart for our little ones.

Well this week that waiter must have thought he was pretty slick. He let us get settled at the table and instead of coming to get our order, he came directly to the table with 5 LARGE glasses of OJ, already ready. He must have juiced it ahead of time and just had it waiting for us!!! It made me laugh and clap out loud to see his pride in thinking ahead. Sure am glad we actually came this day or there would have been a lot of extra juice.

Brussels is known for having rude wait staff and customer service. And it is true, most act like an imposition to help you. But hats off to Sucre Sale for our dapper waiter who made us feel valued and anticipated in this simple, small act!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bowling Balls!

Since we are in town this weekend, we thought we ought to do something very routine and normal. So we tried out the nearby bowling alley. Connor and I met Karen and Brady at the alley and Kirk picked Tony up from work and the guys met us directly there, ready to bowl. We guessed at the European sizes and suited up with the clown shoes for a family bowl-athon!

Little did I know that Karen was actually a league bowler as a child - complete with a monogrammed ball of her own! She and Tony were amazing with a streak of consecutive strikes and spares to start off our frames. Look out! Kirk tried to hold up the Willingham name with a solid performance, but I lost both games and definitely took the award for the most gutter balls. Oh well, we had fun - that is what matters!

Connor was so excited by all the BALLS and the bowling sounds! She kept trying to pick up the heavy bowling balls so we had to watch her (and her toes!) very closely. She and Brady did take turns "helping" us bowl. We got several balls stuck halfway down the alley for lack of force in these cases. Oops!

But mostly the kids ran all around playing chase and shrieking and laughing together. They especially loved sitting at the scoring seats pretending to push all the buttons. They would just laugh and trade seats. We all took turns doing a "happy dance" after every bowl, especially when we actually knocked pins down. The kids would should out "YEAH, Mommy/Daddy!" after each bowl. They also got a kick out of sticking their faces near the "blower fan" at the ball return to let it blow their hair and face. (Don't worry, it is not really a fan that is dangerous - just blows air).
Not sure we are ready to get Connor a monogrammed ball just yet, but we all had a ton of good ole fashioned fun together on our Friday Family Bowl!

I Wouldn't Be a Good Belgian Expat if I Didn't Write About It

I wouldn't be a good Brussels Expat if I didn't take the time to whine a little bit about the most annoying part of living here. There is dog poop in streets - everywhere. It is like walking in a landmine field. You have to dodge here and there. And probably an apropos time to admit this major city flaw since I have managed to step in it twice this week! How embarrassing and gross!

I just think it is culturally accepted that you don't have to pick up after your dog. No use complaining too much about it though. It ain't going to change. Just part of the story of living here. Just won't wear any fancy-dancy shoes I care very much about and that aren't wipeable on the cobblestone streets.

But so you don't end this post thinking about dog poop I will counter with my favorite part about walking the streets here, especially right now. Passerbys are always carrying huge bouquets of flowers these days (sorry I don't have a photo of THAT for you). Enormous packages of flowers with stems as thick as a football. Just the way people in NYC would carry a newspaper with them - very nonchalantly under their arms. It makes me smile. The flowers here are so affordable, fragrant, and fresh. We should buy more flower bouquets in the US and just carry them around like it is no big deal!

Go Tarheels!

I want you to have the image of what happens in our house in the middle of the night during March Madness. Kirk is a loyal, diehard basketball fan. While our beloved Davidson Wildcats were still playing he would stay up for every one of their games - all season long. Remember we have a 6 hour time zone difference. He would either stay up til 3 AM or wake up at 3 AM to watch the game and then go right into work. Talk about devotion. It is one of the more endearing and baffling habits Kirk has ever had. I don't know how he keeps going on such a small amount of sleep. Unfortunately Davidson didn't quite make the NCAA tournament this year after their amazing run to the Elite Eight in 2008. They were eliminated in the second round of the NIT tournament earlier this week.

Last night the UNC Tarheels played in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. It was at 3 AM our time. Kirk went to bed, got up, watched the game, and is now tucked back into bed and sleeping again. We are pretty loyal to the Tarheels when Davidson isn't playing; I went to UNC for my masters degree and both of us grew up cheering for them. But honestly. Is it really worth losing half a night's sleep? Congrats to Roy Williams and his Tarheels for winning the game by 22 points! Not exactly a nail biter.

So you may be wondering how we are able to watch these games an ocean away? Gotta love technology! We have this awesome invention called a Slingbox. It is perfectly legal. We bought the machine that attaches to a cable box back in the States - in our case at brother Ryan's house. It literally lets us take control of the Atlanta cable box via a remote control on the computer. We downloaded the software on our computer and via satellite waves the cable signal "slings" from Atlanta to our computer in Belgium. We haven't missed too much of Oprah, Grey's Anatomy, and Lost thanks to Slingbox. We can DVR shows and watch them back at our leisure. Which makes me wonder why we can't just record the basketball games and watch at a more normal time - like not smack in the middle of the night?!? Oh well, Kirk doesn't want to miss out on anything - so "live" it must be. Thank you Slingbox technology. It helps us to not feel quite so far away from home.

Kirk's edit: Although the Slingbox is great for enabling us to watch most TV shows when we want, there are actually other resources for watching athletic events online, which often provide a higher quality viewing experience. or was the source for most Davidson basketball games, or was the source for games when the Slingbox wasn't working, and is the source for NCAA tournament games. CBS Sports shows all NCAA tournament games online for free and it is actually very high quality - much better than the Slingbox. It's amazing how technology can help keep us in touch with what is going on at home!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Umbrellas and Coats

Last night Karen planned a fun "Girls Night Out" and I had a fun and fabulous time meeting new friends and enjoying glasses of wine out on the town. It wasn't quite like "Sex and the City" girlfriend dinners, but it was maybe as close as it gets as 'expat-mothers-of-young-children' in cold and rainy Brussels. Sweet Kirk took care of Connor and I put on black heels and pants (I can't remember the last time I wasn't wearing jeans and hiking boots).

It was a dreary, rainy night though. And I attempted public transportation. It took a lot longer and it was a lot colder back and forth that way (than in the car), but it was also very urban and the time of quiet solitude en route was a welcome break after constant activity with Connor. We ate at L'Ultime Atome, which is right off of the Chausee d'Ixelles (photo not taken last night - picture this place but dark and rainy). Very yummy with lots of menu choices and good ambiance.

So it was while walking to the bus stop that I thought about how funny it is that I live in such a cold and rainy city now. I absolutely detest and boycott umbrellas and jackets whenever possible. Always have and always will. But here those are two primary necessities. Yet last night was the first time I have carried an umbrella in the 6 months we have been here. I prefer to run it out. And since Connor's stroller is covered, it usually works. Last night I was dueling with my umbrella and wasn't sure if it was going to turn inside out or stay right side in. I can't imagine how I could push a stroller while carrying an umbrella at the same time! A mother's multitasking never ends.

It's Not Green Muh-Muh, But....

It is not Green Muh-Muh, but it is pretty darn close. If you have been following the Green Muh-Muh drama then you know we lost a special blankie. It still hurts to talk/type about. Leave it to my mom though. I think she can find or do anything. She went on a hunt for a replacement Muh-Muh and found this Pink Muh-Muh...or as Connor calls it now "Pink Blankie." We let Connor open the package with Mom watching on Skype. Connor literally squealed with glee. Very cute.

Pink Blankie has the soft bumps just like "Green Muh-Muh" did and the soft satin lining. I still can't believe Mom tracked it down. "Green Muh-Muh" came from Steinmart and you know how those knock-off department stores are. They usually don't have a consistent stock, especially 2 years later. But she found it and sent it over to us. Granted I think the postage for it cost just as much as the blanket itself!

The only challenge with Pink Blankie is the larger size. It is too big as compared with Green Muh-Muh's small square, holdable shape. Connor trips over Pink Blankie when walking. So my dear friend, Dallas, has a sophisticated sewing machine and the talent to go along with it so she has Pink Blankie right now and is working on cutting it into pieces. That way it will be smaller for Connor PLUS we will have a back up should the unthinkable happen again! Mom, you are wonderful. Thanks for caring so much and understanding security blanket drama. I love you.

Weekend Clean Up

I am so excited about a weekend where we spend each night at home. I am ready to scour this place. Because there is no central air or heat the dust bunnies accumulate so quickly. It is hard to be motivated because as soon as I clean the dust comes right back. Plus the "Connor crumbs" are everywhere - Cheerios, play dough specs, and stray pasta pieces. Yuck. I like having a tiny apartment because there is not as much to clean - but it does mean you notice it all a lot more.

So Saturday morning as soon as Connor wakes up, the vacuum will be out and it will be the kind of cleaning where furniture is moved to get in to the nooks and crannies. It usually takes both of us being at home to accomplish this type of deep clean. Kirk will entertain Connor in order to leave me alone to my chore - otherwise she will be underfoot all the time. I am almost through all of the laundry from our Poland trip and there are clean sheets on our bed. Who knows maybe I will be on a roll and even scrub our bathtub and magic eraser the stroller smudges on the walls? Doesn't it sound like a glamorous weekend in Europe?!?! TGIF!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jen gets married!

There are many amazing parts of living abroad, but probably the crummiest part is that you have to miss out on so much back in the USA. We are the type of "be there" people that we will move mountains to attend events and be there for our friends - or at least we like to think we are. And something about a wedding. It is the very best event to celebrate with friends! So it breaks my heart to miss out on great milestones like this one.

My dear friend, Jen, married David - her best friend from college - on February 28 in Chapel Hill. It was a small, intimate wedding. The happiness of being together jumps off the photos she sent me, don't you think? They are a great couple. Destined. They started dating last summer and within months were engaged and now married and setting up a new life in Charlotte, NC. But if you are already best friends then it doesn't take long to know when it is right.Here is the thing. Jen has during the course of their engagement been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It is benign, thankfully, but they are pretty sure it will require surgery to alleviate some pretty debilitating symptoms she is experiencing. And there are still many unknowns. Talk about putting the "in sickness and in health" vows to the test right away. David seems a loving, devoted mate. I am so happy for them and their newlywed glee. Surely that will carry them through this medical hurdle and sail them into the rest of their life together.

Jen, I am so sorry I missed your wedding. If only the Atlantic Ocean wasn't so big! Look forward to celebrating with you soon. The same goes to Brian and Micah and Emily and to all of the new babies births we are missing. I hope you can feel our love across the miles. I had fun this morning buying 6 wedding/baby gifts. Thank goodness for online registry shopping!

Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland turned out to be quite a place. The weather when we arrived was blue sky beautiful. So while Connor and I got settled we sent Kirk out to explore and get his bearings. He took lots of photos since we were pretty sure the weather would turn soon.

Indeed it was colder and cloudier the next day. But we enjoyed the spacious Market Square. It is enormous. We don't have anything quite like this anywhere in the USA. Imagine what was going on there years ago. Simultaneous markets of every kind and type, I bet. The place to see and be seen!
The Cloth Market smack in the middle of the Market Square was a fun row of vendors of "all things touristy" - we refrained from buying anything but there was gorgeous amber jewelry all around. I bet it was pretty cheap too! In hindsight I probably should have looked more seriously for a necklace or something. If our fancy 3 course meals cost a total of $28 then I bet the jewels were a steal also!
This Krakow may seem like a place you don't know anything about - but you know more than you think. Krakow's university graduates include Pope John Paul II and Copernicus. It was a colorful, very pretty city despite the grey day.

I especially liked Wawel Hill. It is a "historic hilltop with views, castle, cathedral, courtyard with chakras, and a passel of museums" (Rick Steve's). All the history and facts aside, we had a blast running all over the inner courtyard. Connor's shrieks echoed around the walls causing her to laugh even harder.

We saw a fire-breathing dragon at the "Dragon Gate." And though we were a world away there were still Coke ads!
We walked to the Jewish neighborhood called Kazimierz. Can you imagine that before WWII 65,000 Jews lived in Krakow (in this small neighborhood), but today there are only 200 Jewish residents in all of Krakow? Talk about change. The Jewish stories are still there nonetheless. Historic cemeteries, synagogues, and shops. When we were there there was a very strange "Used Clothing Market" going on. I weaved in and around the stalls and was perplexed by the used shoes and shirts all around. I guess this is Krakow's answer to consignment clothes shopping, but it was odd being all outside and didn't seem to have a rhyme or reason as to who sold what where.

On Sunday afternoon Kirk was interested in seeing the Wieliczka Salt Mines. They came touted in books and by a travel agent so we decided it would be helpful to cross off our list of Krakow highlights. It was clear it was not a place for Connor with the shafts and mines so Kirk set out solo. Plus we were happy to poke around aimlessly. Kirk returned nearly 6 hours later exasperated from his salt mine attempts. He had a bus nightmare with missing the stop and having to ride to the end of the line to return. Then when he was finally at the mine he said it was the epitome of a tourist trap. Ranked right up there with Gatlinburg and Dollywood. In looking at his photos, I have to admit I agree. The salt carvings do seem pretty impressive, but also pretty artificial and contrived to rake in the tourist dollar. The salt chapel looked to be the best spot.

At our Hotel Grodek, Connor found a special niche in the closet to use as her "house" - which kept us in stitches the entire trip. She would climb in and slide the mirrored door back and forth and call out "house, house, house." I was surprised she wasn't fearful of the complete darkness with the door closed. And she only pinched her fingers twice, so the cozy enclosed spot was her special space. It reminded me of the linen closet I would nap in at my Meme's house!
Kirk also had fun "flying" with Connor on the bed. Amazing how much fun just being together in a hotel can be!
So all in all it was another fulfilling European adventure. Another spot that was unfamiliar and unknown, now discovered. Connor just loved playing everywhere. Even in the airport where they had a ball pit! Good thing since we had to get up at 2:45 AM to make our 6 AM flight that day! Budget airlines do have their pros and cons!!! But we had to get Kirk back in time for work.