Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Gracious the Groceries!

Phew! Grocery shopping is by far the most culturally difficult part of living in Belgium. I mentally prepare for the challenge every time and put on my imaginary coat of armor. I try to avoid taking Connor with me if possible because the gauntlet's complexity is exponentially compounded with a stroller and a 2 year old.

We are lucky because there are 2 grocery stores within a 3 block radius of our apartment. Meaning 3 blocks is the longest distance I ever have to haul heavy bags. When it is 3 blocks + heavy groceries (drinks are the worst to carry) + a stroller + rain - that equals a panting juggling act - unfun!

The grocery stores close at 8 PM every night and all day on Sundays. No 24/7 convenience around here! This means going during the "after work" hours is a complete nightmare since that is when everyone smushes in to grab groceries.

I don't know if it is a product of living in the heart of downtown or if it is Brussels' stores in general, but the supermarkets are far from glistening. Things seem messy and disorganized. In my store the food is all downstairs so we navigate an escalator before we even reach the produce. And probably most maddening of all, they can't seem to decide where to store items. The crackers may be upstairs one week, downstairs on aisle 5 the next month and aisle 7 the next. Alcohol has changed locations 3 times since we moved here as have the veggies along the produce row. At first I thought it was me losing my mind. But then as I waded through the physical effects of these transfers I realized I was sane, but the grocery store management was not!
Another common complaint is that the store may stock an item today but never again. Nothing is guaranteed so buy it now versus later. For instance, one store stopped carrying sour cream altogether. String cheese only recently appeared. I am still searching for frozen corn and cooking spray.

The stores also do all their shelf-stocking at the height of shopping hours. I am always wading through cartons and palettes yet to be shelved. With a stroller I often have to abort and turn around because there isn't room to pass around the abandoned boxes.

A friend recently told me this was because the stores have to pay 4 times as much in wages for employees to work outside of store hours. It is all enough to make you very cynical.

And shoppers push that cynicism onto their fellow shoppers literally. Because the too-narrow aisles are packed I am literally bumped, pushed, shoved an average of oh 7 or 8 times every grocery run. I actually understand the nudges - the space is too confined. But what really sends me over the moon is that no one says "Pardon" or even acknowledges the assault. It is just accepted as commonplace. Sometimes they even glare - at me! - when they are the ones who careen into us. UGH! Get your elbows out and at the ready. It is like nails on a chalkboard. And I don't trust my French enough to say anything. My heart rate is elevated even now just typing about it.

If you want to shop with a cart instead of physically carrying items through the store then you must rent the cart. All carts have coin operated locks and they are linked together on chains. Stick your euro in the slot and then wiggle the lock free. Pretty clever idea, unless you happen to not have the proper-shaped coin.

There are some good parts though about European groceries...

The bread section is enormous and there is even a fancy bread cutter machine to slice the fresh-baked loaves. Once I got over my initial fear at the slicer and figured out how to locate the properly shaped bread bag it became a joy.

yogurt and cheese aisles leave me speechless with choices and selection.

European milk is not refrigerated. It took me a long while to get used to this. Connor loves it though, so I don't question it anymore. You can honestly buy milk in bulk and store it unopened for several months in the pantry.

There is a lot of Belgian chocolate at the grocery store for affordable prices!
Speculoos cookies and Nutella are special sweet treats. As are applesauce packets you squeeze directly into your mouth.
Another unique grocery practice I had to learn (the hard way) is that most produce you must bag and weigh on a special machine which spits out a price sticker BEFORE you get to the register.

The final obstacle on the grocery race is loading groceries onto the cashier belt fast enough and then bagging the items at warp speed as they are scanned - in bags you bring from home (or you can buy them, no plastic freebies). I feel like I have whiplash by the time I am ready to load up and trudge home.

There are many glamorous parts of living in Europe. But grocery shopping is definitely not one of them! I will miss a lot of things when we move from Belgium...but hey bring on the USA grocery stores. Publix, I miss you. Whole Foods - heaven!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Our Favorite Rest Stop

My heart melts whenever Connor wakes up. My little Sleeping Beauty! One of the difficult parts of car travel is timing our stops around Connor's naps. She is a great car sleeper except she wakes up EVERY TIME the car engine stops. Like clockwork. No matter if she has been asleep 90 or 15 minutes. The motion is a necessary constant. This pit stop was no different. Kirk and I giggled when we looked back and Connor announced "Connor's awake!" Her curls were even curlier than usual!
Up and at'em we were ready to stretch our legs.
Ready at least after we got Connor's shoes back on.I have been meaning to blog about European rest stops. And these photos were taken at one of our favorites. European highways are completely opposite to those in the USA. Instead of an exit full of fast food stops every mile, there is ONE place every 30-40 miles - no exit, just a one way veer off and on the highway. This makes the words, "Mommy, I need to go potty" some of the most dreaded depending on the proximity of the next available stop. Compound this with the fact that our gas card works only at Total gas stations, we have to be that much more strategic and selective about our timing and intentional in our planning.Exit 29 on the French/Belgian border is a true truckers stop and has become one of our regulars. Can you guess why?!?Those truckers and then my Connor with her wooden red truck and a slide on the back.I originally really disliked this European highway standard. But you know, I have come to accept and appreciate it. And we plan accordingly.

Alsace Wines and American Cemeteries

I bet you've never seen an Advent calendar quite like this before! We had to think a while to figure it out since all the windows had already been opened. But after a while of pondering we realized the 25 openings corresponded to the days anticipating Christmas.Such an adorable and sacred tradition. I had fun imagining the pomp that probably went into the daily shudder openings!We drove from town to town along Alsace's Route du Vin to see what we could see. This Wine Road is an asphalt ribbon that ties 90 miles of vineyards, villages, and feudal fortresses into an understandably popular tourist package.I thought the vineyards would look puny in the snow, but I was wrong. They were beautiful. Even without their leafy greens and luscious fruit.The Alsace grapes extended far and wide hugging the mountains in lovely symmetry.
And wouldn't you know, another rainbow! This one arced across the sky end to end. We remarked that we weren't sure we had ever seen as complete of a rainbow before.
Where are those leprechauns and pots of gold?
On the front and back end of our road trip we visited two different American Military Cemeteries. St. Mihiel which is primarily a World War I resting spot. There are over 4,100 white crosses here. I didn't really think of WWI experiencing the loss of so many American lives. I was wrong.
And then on the way back home we stopped at the Lorraine American Cemetery. This memorial is over 113 acres lines with 10,489 crosses from WWII. A camera could not capture the extent of the grounds. Kirk said, it is just shocking. Indeed it was.
Ironically as we pulled away from the Lorraine Cemetery we saw this sign. Ha! Small world.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Colmar Revisited

Colmar was a home-base for our 6-country weekend tour. Utterly charming Colmar is nestled in the Alsace region of France. We visited the city last November, but the major museums were closed then due to a holiday. So we were intentional now about returning here for a redo.Colmar is a special place. It feels like walking into a huge gingerbread house village. I couldn't help retaking photos of my favorite buildings.
Best of all, unlike so many rebuilt city centers these intriguing structures are authentic. As Rick writes, Historic beauty was usually a poor excuse for being spared the ravages of World War II, but it worked for Colmar. The American and British military were careful not to bomb the half-timbered old burghers' houses, characteristic red-and green-tiled roofs, and cobbled lanes of Alsace's most beautiful city.
Doesn't this place just look like either Smurfette or a Fairy Godmother will pop out singing at any moment? It is surreal.
Street upon street, block upon block of quaint architectural jewels.
Roofing this ornate Customs House (below) is worthy of being called an artists' masterpiece. Not one tile was out of place.
The museum we returned to Colmar to see is the Unterlinden Museum. Placed in an old abbey it is a wonderful mish-mash of priceless items old and new. This photo of Kirk and Connor in the abbey cloister gets me. My precious family. Connor in her red ladybug boots. Loving on her Dad right in the middle of Europe!
Connor has gotten the hang of this art museum routine. She looks at the pieces for characters familiar and new.
We seem to always be able to find plenty Baby Jesus canvases with the three kings. Yet every artist has a different feel with their Adoration.
Even the audioguide was embraced by my little one. I am not sure there was much understanding or retention, but the curator's voice did make a helpful distraction to let us enjoy a few moments in peace.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is - just as Rick writes - devastatingly beautiful and a real centerpiece to the museum's collection.
We poked around upstairs where there was everything from coats of armor to dollhouse scenes. Every random thing that could make you go hmmmm. But downstairs was a treasure trove of modern art.
Hello Picasso!
This town is also the birthplace of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The Bartholdi Museum was unfortunately closed yet again. It closes up for the months of Jan and Feb. Gotta love the French way of life!
That aside, Colmar and the Unterlinden Museum were worth the second trip. I consider it one of my very favorite French towns.