Friday, July 31, 2009

Sales and Vacations

The business economics of Belgium baffle me. There are many practices that seem inefficient and antiquated. One such policy is that the stores in Belgium are only allowed to have big storewide sales on their merchandise in the months of January and July - as controlled by the government, I think? Can you imagine - no "Black Friday" or Belks discount coupons!?!?! It has caused shopping mania over here. Every store window is plastered with notices of sales ("soldes") and the shopping streets are jam-packed. I guess it could be a good jolt for these two sale months, but it is a little strange for my taste. As the month wears on the sales get better and better. I have seen many signs for 70% off! I have resisted for the most part because the euro prices are still more than the USA.
Another part of shopping in Belgium that I have alluded to before is the way shopkeepers and other service personnel don't seem to be motivated by courteous customer service principles. They seem oblivious and indifferent as to whether or not you give them your business; many of them make an effort to ignore you! The attitude is that you don't ask questions and definitely you never return anything - heaven forbid! So while the sales are highly anticipated, I will wait for American service and sales tactics to shop.
The other thing that is happening in Brussels right now is that July and August are MAJOR vacation months. The city basically clears out (except for the shoppers, of course). If you don't believe me just check out some of the signs plastered on shop windows on our block alone.Of course - the epitome of indecision is exemplified in that all signs are posted in both languages spoken here - Dutch AND French!The Marriott even posts their closure notice in English. Can you even imagine this happening in USA? A note saying, "Sorry, we are closed this month! See ya next month!" greeting customers.Many have asked me how in the world Kirk gets so much vacation from work to be able to travel. Maybe this post will help in explaining the European culture of prioritizing vacation and the important work/life balance... And I guess that is a pretty good thing! Even if the tactics around it seem sometimes hard to understand.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Adios Amigos

Boy this blog adventure through Spain has been pretty extensive. Thanks for coming along with us!
We are signing off from the Andalucia trip. I shot these 3 pics of Connor in the Seville airport as we waited for our flight home. She was so sweet and the airport was a great one to run all around to burn off some of that last energy before the flight back.
Goodbye Spain! Adios my sweet amigo, Brooke! Thanks for an awesome trip! Of all the places we have been, I would recommend this trip or some version of it the most for an "off the beaten path" European adventure.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Horses and Arcos de la Frontera

Our last day in Andalucia, Spain was a busy one. We were raring to see all that we could before leaving. We squeezed in a trip to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain at the last minute. Jerez is the birthplace of sherry wine and flamenco as well as home to the world famous Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. The "de la Frontera" part of the name refers to the cities in this area being "on the frontier" between what used to be the Muslim and the Christian areas. Small Christian towns formed as they pushed into the Moorish/Muslim region.

We happened to hit the Royal Horse school on one of their magic days when the famous Horse Symphony show was taking place. We knew it would be tons of fun for Connor, so how could we resist? The grounds of the school were beyond belief. We watched several training sessions and then went into the arena.
Connor loved all the beautiful Andalusian horses. Yep the horse breed is named after this region!I think this might be a horse face!Inside we waited with baited breath for the show. No photos allowed during the performance, so I can't show you. But it was over the top. The horses and riders were in such melodic synchrony as they sashayed and promenaded around. Equestrian dressage is an unbelievable sport. It seems akin to teaching a hippo how to walk a tightrope to me! Our guidebook reads, "This is an equestrian ballet with choreography, purely Spanish music, and costumes from the 19th century. The stern riders and their talented, obedient steeds prance, jump, hop on their hind legs, and do-si-do in time to the music" (Rick Steves)Clearly this is not my photo (below), but I insert it because honestly this is what the horses did. They would elevate on their back hind legs and with a command would pop up into the air. Just like the horse weighed a couple of pounds. I am still baffled at how they teach this trick without breaking all of the horses legs in practice.Connor thought the show was the best. She couldn't stop talking about the "horses dancing!!!"I bought her 2 postcards of the "horses dancing" as a souvenir. She took those picture cards and stared at and talked to them for the rest of the day in the car. It was very cute!We went to the Sandeman sherry facility. I walked in and had to take deep inhales to breathe in the sweet sherry smell. Fun fact: the name "sherry" comes from English attempts to pronounce "Jerez."We then drove 30 minutes down the road and through more sunflower fields to Arcos de la Frontera. Arcos, as the name suggests, was the main frontier town and the "bulwark of Christianity" after the Moors were expelled. It is hard to imagine setting off in the middle of this nowheresville to spread Christianity. Must have been some dedicated pilgrims!"Arcos smothers its long, narrow hilltop and tumbles down the back of the ridge like the train of a wedding dress...The old center is a labyrinthine wonderland, a photographer's feast. Viewpoint-hop through town. Feel the wind funnel through the narrow streets as cars inch around tight corners. Join the kids' soccer game on the churchyard patio. Enjoy the moonlit view from the main square" (Rick).All of the narrow streets and steep hills helped us feel the burn! Especially poor Kirk who took the lead with pushing around a sleeping Connor in the stroller. Connor napped from the moment we got to Arcos til the moment we left. It was a treat for us...but I guess she missed it entirely! A tight squeeze. Made our decision to park and walk up look like a good one!It was HOT! I mean steamy hot. We walked around the white-washed streets for a while but ended up at the Parador de Arcos de la Frontera hotel for lunch within the air-conditioned parlor. The large picture window overlooking the surrounding farmlands made the perfect backdrop.I had fun looking online at how others photographed this beautiful town. This first shot below of the arched passageway is mine, while the black and white one that follows it is from the internet. Fun to see the similarities and differences of how we chose to capture this scene!Kirk and Connor along the narrow streets of white - no doubt sweating even in the shade! An aerial shot of Arcos de la Frontera. Erosion in an issue for them as pieces and parts of the town have already fallen victim to the perched landscape!Click here for full album photos of our time in Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Magna Doodle and CROISSANTS!

CROISSANT! CROISSANT! CROISSANT!!!! Did I tell you that my baby loves to say the word "croissant" --- she likes to eat them too! It evolved into a big game with Brooke and Connor on our trip. Brooke would just look at Connor and say in a funny voice "croissANT" sending Connor into contagious laughter. Do that 10 times in a row and all 4 of us were hysterical! So imagine our glee when we checked into our hotel and in Brooke's room this artwork adorned the wall!!! The "CROISSANT" chants reignited!On our trip we discovered a handy game to keep Connor sitting patiently. We whip out the Magna Doodle and play "Win, Lose or Draw" and Connor has to guess the image. Some of us opt for the more simplistic figures....ahem, Kirk!Others of us go for the more drawing a CROISSANT!
And if that hasn't made your heart sing, then just watch this video from that same meal. We really hadn't talked about CROISSANTS in the past day or two when this was shot, so the recognition was that much more funny. Connor really is becoming quite a European baby!

Morocco - A Ferry to Africa

Umm. I am not sure how to even start this post.
How day we took a ferry to Africa.
And spent the day in Morocco.
Yep, just any normal day when you take on a new continent and all. I woke up with my stomach in tight knots a little frightened about the adventure ahead, but we pressed on and honestly that anticipation of the unknown was a big part of the fun! (I can say that now that we are back safe and sound!)We traveled from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco aboard a 30 minute ferry. Who knew Spain was that close?! We were met at the ship by our guide named Muhammad (figures - apparently Muhammad is what Muslim parents typically name their first-born son) and off we went to explore and discover. Brooke and I tried to be engaged yet at the same time discreet. We definitely felt the impact of being a woman in a Muslim country. When our guide started talking about Shi'ite Muslims vs Sunni Muslims I really felt very far from home.

The first part of our tour we were taken up and around the wealthy part of Tangier. We saw the fancy palaces and homes of the rich and famous. Except all the homes and palaces were behind big huge walls. I didn't think this start was terribly interesting since we really couldn't see what was behind the walls, but as Brooke noted - they wanted to be sure our first impression of Morocco was the wealthy as opposed to the brutal poverty. Makes sense.
I got a kick out of the stop sign in Arabic.This mansion we were able to catch a glimpse inside. I could tell the Islamic/Spanish overlap with the colorful tile detail and the intricate carved wood.We went out to the point where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean ocean. Our guide told us this place is mentioned in Homer and many Greek myths. Although it was hard to take him seriously or even to focus too much because he kept calling "Homer" "Humor" and poor guy, he was missing some teeth in some strategic places. Not the easiest person to concentrate on! No worry though because Connor loved the ocean and especially this large cactus.Then a special highlight of the trip - we RODE CAMELS! I had a hard time picking the best of the best photos because who really has the chance to ride camels in Morocco?!?! My camel is this one; she is named Fatima. Doesn't it just look like Fatima is smiling for the camera?! We paraded together in a big circle. We can't help but to buckle with laughter at these photos though. Doesn't it look like Brooke's camel has a gigantic hump as opposed to the camels Kirk and I are riding? We didn't realize the difference til looking at the photos and now we see why Brooke was balancing and holding on for dear life while we were waving away with confidence. Too funny!I'm not sure Connor knew what was happening. It is a miracle she didn't scream. Instead she held on tight to Daddy and took it all in while riding the camel's hump.
These photos crack me up too. Brooke looks glamorous even as the camel sits with her on it!Connor wanted to see the baby camel up close!We went to Hercules' cave. To tell you the truth I couldn't tell you a thing about the caves - why they are there or the story of their importance. It is a big tourist trap now a days but a fun one.Inside the cave was an opening that looked like a backwards image of the continent of Africa!There were many schoolchildren dressed in traditional Moroccan outfits visiting the caves too.After the caves we entered the historic Old Town in Tangier. In this photo Kirk is following our guide. And off to the side is a snake charmer! We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore!A peek at the beach from the Old Town.The many doors and tile entries were charming too.We had a demonstration from a local pharmacist about all of the local alternative herbs and medicines. It was interesting to learn about the uses for the creams and spices. We walked into the food market area around lunchtime. Handy, right?! The market was a feast of color, sights, and smells - just as you would imagine it. Not sure I would be comfortable getting my meats and produce this way, but it works for them. We saw a little bit of everything, even some guy walking by with freshly butchered goats strung over his shoulder.We opted for a clean and touristy Moroccan menu at a place in the middle of the market. It was a multi-course treat with Moroccan cous-cous and other yummy dishes. I just love this photo of Kirk at lunch with the festive colors all around.This course was the best. It was a pastry with ground chicken topped with cinnamon and sugar. I have never had anything like it before, but it literally danced in my mouth with powerful, tantalizing spices. I think I could have eaten 3 of them!I can't decide who Connor looks like in this shot. But I love that look! She had just woken from her nap.Connor lunched on her new favorite - ham and cheese. I made a promise with myself that I would bring everything from Spain that she ate. Just one of my phobias - I didn't want to deal with a sick child. Here Connor partakes the ham and cheese along with her toy camel. She was still on a high from the camel ride!
The Moroccan quartet added the perfect ambiance to our meal. Connor and I went over and danced a jig with them! They thought Connor was pretty cute!They thought Brooke was pretty cute too!Here is a video of us dancing along....enjoy! Not sure Connor knew what to make of it all!

We looked down at the market below and these guys were selling live turtles (as pets?) atop these baskets. They even pulled out a big lizard at one point!More colorful streets along the Old Town maze of avenues and corners.With full bellies Muhammad led us to a shop that sold expensive rugs - like any good tour guide who was hoping for a commission off any sales would. We didn't buy anything, but enjoyed the carpet show nevertheless. Connor loved sprinting atop the ornate rugs.Another one of my favorite shots is this one of Kirk and Connor waiting outside a shop in the Old Town while the ladies shopped away. The colors and chaos of it all screams Morocco!We visited the American Ligation in Tangier. Kinda like an embassy. Pictured below. Still very Moroccan even if it is American!Finally we topped off the day with a visit to the beach. The shore was wider than any other I had ever seen. Here is Connor with the Old Town in the background. We couldn't resist capturing this scene of the men and boys frolicking on the hot summer day with the women fully clothed in the traditional Muslim covering.On the ferry ride back to Spain I had a Diet Coke with an Arabic label. Can you see the relief in my face? I was very happy we went to Morocco, but returning home was a great feeling too. What a sensational adventure.
We needed maracas to shake in Morocco! Hard to believe I have now been to AFRICA!