Thursday, April 29, 2010

Going Away Party

Kirk's coworkers hosted a fabulous going away party for us our last night living in Brussels. The movers pulled away an hour before the party started. Annie was so sweet to come stay in our bare apartment with nary a chair or a TV to Connor-sit while we attended the bash. It ended up being a rockin' party that got us home a couple of hours later than we intended. Poor Annie was gracious with our late night escapades, but the tardiness was uncharacteristic of us and I still feel a tad guilty about our extended outing. We were fortunate she was able to help us out so we could enjoy our friends and our last night to the fullest.
Joe, John and Tom hosted the party in their Sablon apartment on the rooftop terrace overlooking Brussels' skyline. The view was beautiful and Joe outdid himself with appetizers and savory yummy treats. It felt like everyone from Kirk's work teams came to bid him au revoir. I was surprised at the turnout for a weeknight - there must have been 30 or 35 folks there. It was one of those nights where I was especially overwhelmed with compliments on Kirk and his work. It strikes me as funny that I can love and know Kirk for over 15 years now and still not totally know him as a professional. This was a great window into his professional demeanor and accomplishments.
The Coke team presented Kirk with a stereotypical "Belgian" basket - Belgian beer, Belgian endives, three of the most beautiful Belgium coffee table books they all signed like a yearbook and several bottles of wine.
The guys were very dear to host a fun and lively party in our honor. I was able to peek into Kirk's work life and it made me all the more grateful for the opportunity and privilege we have had to live abroad and for Kirk to work and do business on an international level. The conference call between colleagues will no longer be faceless deals and translated negotiations, rather a call between friends and familiar coworkers across the ocean.

My Goodness Our Move

We have come full circle in the move process. Of course it must be documented on both ends - the coming and the going. Moving from the USA to Brussels was perhaps the most stressful month of my life. And I try to pride myself on being relatively calm and organized. But with so many moving pieces the blur of ends and the beginnings make my head spin. This time things were a little bit more orderly, but still crazy! There just is no graceful way to make an international move.

We left our apartment 6 weeks ago. Thankfully we connected with another expat family moving to Brussels and looking to furnish a home. We were able to sell our IKEA furniture to them - talk about a win/win! We rented a truck and reserved a parking spot in front of our building to load. Only hiccup - after spending $175 to reserve the spot for the day (highway robbery) there were 2 cars parked smack dab in between our reserved posts. How typical! I felt like a bad guy calling the police and then having them towed, but what's a moving girl to do? The recovery fees are rumored to be $400-500. I am sorry whoever owns this car!The movers were a whirling dervish of packing mayhem. It was almost relaxing to turn our mess over to them to box away and deliver. They were pros and seemed to have a special box for every type of item - wardrobe boxes, mattress box, and book boxes. Our entire apartment was boxed up within a few hours! 108 boxes. How did we have so much stuff?!? The method for getting stuff down and into our sea storage carton was incredible. They open our windows, jerry-rig this supersized conveyor and up, down, up, down the platform carries all our stuff down the 4 flights. Connor and I watched as bit by bit everything made it down the conveyor.Down she goes!And into the boat carton. I had often seen these cartons stacked on boats in ports, but never thought twice about what was inside. Now I know!Connor charmed the movers. They thought she was pretty cute and kept flashing their muscles at her. I thought we might lose out on the cute factor when they had to pack up all of her toys. It took a lot of explaining but she finally caught on.
Lisa brought us lunch. The girls had a fun time playing amongst the boxses. It made for a terrific send off.Each box was labeled and documented. We are spoiled with such exact and precise movers. Connor attempted to nap but after an hour of unrest I just pulled her crib into the main room so she could watch the action. There was no napping on this day!We couldn't believe it when everything was gone. It started to feel real that we were leaving. Very bittersweet. This apartment has been good to us - many memories here. It was hard not to feel sad and nostalgic about the life we were leaving behind.We got out and bid goodbye to our street too...On Rue Des Poissonniers our most friendly neighbor is Michel the hairdresser. They cut our hair, but more importantly they were good neighbors. Every time we passed they stopped and waved and smiled with a hearty "Bonjour" - this could happen 10 times a day and they always seemed genuinely happy to see us.Michel speaks not a lick of English, but was always patient with my French. He gave Connor a going away gift and I know I will miss his kindness. I always felt safer knowing Michel was nearby.I will also miss Gracine the grocer, the lady who fed the birds every morning and the kind young pharmacist down the road. And oh the Restaurant de la Bourse...the best mussels and frites in town!We passed the Whittamer chocolate window display too...springtime in chocolate. I will miss you wonderful Whittamer!Returning home we assessed our remaining stuff for our upcoming adventure. A month around Europe in the warmest climates and the coldest too. On budget airlines. Therefore this was all we had for 30 days for three of us! I think we deserve a packing award.Packing is an all out exhausting, emotional process. We survived!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

Dorothy was right, there really is no place like it. I feel like I have clicked my heels together three times and here were are...HOME. Back where we started. So much has changed and yet so little. There are new houses being built, new restaurants, and neighborhood children have grown up in the blink of an eye. But the trees are still blindingly green, people everywhere are still kind, I am remembering my way around town, and best of all our friends are still here. We have fallen right into their loving arms and are enveloped in their care during this time of transition. Our neighborhood still overflows with a small town spontaneous friendliness...within 45 minutes of us arriving three separate families walked by and stopped to welcome us home on the front porch. Boy it feels great to be back in the 'hood!

There is a song in the musical "Wicked" called "For Good" and the chorus really sums up my feelings about the amazing adventure we completed:
"Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good"

I feel certain that because I knew life in Brussels I am for good changed by my time living abroad. I think more. I am more worldly. I am even closer to our family unit. So even though we are working frantically to put pieces back in place, things are different...for the better!

Rewind...We had a crazy trip back from Budapest to Brussels and then Brussels to USA amidst the drama of the volcano ash grounding European flights for a week. We had to make a call on our Brussels to Budapest flight Tuesday morning via early train or afternoon flight. We decided not to risk it and took the 14 hour sure bet train trip versus the 90 minute flight. As luck would have it our afternoon flight was one of the very few that flew that day as the restrictions lessened. It was financially a big bummer - yet we have been so lucky with efficient travel that we seemed due. It ended up being an absolute blast on the train. It was of course packed full, but full with jovial, glass-half-full Brits making the best of things and happy to be chugging home at long last. We traded volcano war stories and by the time we were underway Connor charmed fellow travelers into taking turns reading stories to her one lap and one person after another. Until she was just exhausted and fell asleep on Kirk...We were weary travelers to say the least after the train trip. Joe and John let us crash with them. They fed us and we were (and still are) forever grateful. If I had to face another salami sandwich dinner and a hotel...let's just say it was time for some home cookin' and the fellowship of friends. They let us completely take over their hallway to repack and organize our 8 suitcases and 3 carry on bags. Good gracious! Joe was the host with the most! His lasagne made my stomach smile from end to end!Brussels to Atlanta went without a hitch. I had to snap a photo of us though at the airport. We got plenty a strange looks at the baggage carousel as we kept hauling bag after bag after bag.Staying this first week with friends has been an amazing aspect in our reentry. They fill in every gap and need. Their daughter was precious and made us the following welcome home sign. Yay, Yay is absolutely right!Connor is in playmate heaven. The children were all 3 in the pack n play last night reading away. Have you ever?!?The only hiccup we have had is Connor and skinned knees. She has managed to scrape them up pretty good with all the play. At least there are Barbie band-aids to make everything feel better!Finally, today was my little one's first day of school! With a borrowed backpack and hand me down Crocs she hip hopped her way back to full time care. Here she is all ready to go!Truth be told I was a little lonely without my two year old buddy with me. But she did great. Not a tear and when I picked her up she looked up at me and proclaimed, "I had a fun day at school Mommy!" Yep, there really is no place like home.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Out on the Town, Au Revoir Brussels

We had a wonderful farewell send off to this city we have called home for the past 18 months. Isn't it ironic how you wait til the very end to explore your own home?!? We haven't been out to eat this much the entire time we have been living in Brussels. But each of my girlfriend groups organized a small dinner to send us out in style. I sure will miss my new gal pals!

So many dear friends from the Brussels Childhood Trust (BCT). Mai and Noe are in the photo below. We tried a new restaurant near the Mont des Arts, called Kwint. It was a fancy affair; we felt wined and dined. The BCT Playgroups are organized by commune and bring together English-speaking mothers. What an essential network - these were some of my first friends. And their daughters some of Connor's first friends too!The "Hintsters" group consists of friends I met through the American Women's Club of Brussels during my 'Hints for Living in Brussels' orientation class. These beautiful ladies have provided me with side-splitting laughter and incredible joy during our monthly dinners. Most of which end up lasting 4-5 hours as we hoot and holler amidst the annoyed glances of other Belgian diners. But we don't care. I will miss their gorgeous smiles and encouragement.Karen has also taken to organizing "Ladies Night" Dinners for many months now. This last one was my fond farewell from the group. Karen was so dear to bring me flowers and we dined at "Le Fourneau" in Grand Sablon (fun French place). Our crew closed the restaurant down. It has been a while since I have done that! Karen has been not only a true friend, but a fabulous connector to the lovely ladies of the Ixelles neighborhood.Ciara also had us over to her home for a proper British tea time to say goodbye to our La Chaise Musicale friends. Complete with Earl Grey and yummy scones. We even were able to Skype Nicky who moved to Switzerland in January to reunite all four music buddies! I am grateful to these British ladies for all they have done to guide and love our family these many months (sorry no photo).

Finally, Kirk and I had on our must-do list to go to Belga Queen for dinner one night. The stars aligned and our friends, Laura and Shawn, just happened to be in town visiting. Sweet Annie came over to babysit and the four of us had a sophisticated double dinner date at one of Brussels' top restaurants. I even put on hose and heels - which has not happened in a long time! It felt good to be dressy.We loved Belga Queen and highly recommend it for a special night out.Now all wasn't so glamorous for our final days in Brussels. Take a look at our kitchen as I tried to organize what was to go where before the movers arrived. What a mess! At least I had Karen's pretty purple tulips to brighten the load. She also showed her Southern hospitality gene by bringing us homemade lasagne during this transition time. Thank you Karen!!! Brussels, dear Brussels. I will miss skipping through your Grand Place on a daily basis. What a fairy tale this has been. But now it is time for us to make our way back to America to "live happily ever after"!!!

Prayers for Poland

Amidst Europe's air chaos, Poland is living out the tragic effects of their own air chaos. Ninety-six high level political officials died in a plane crash on April 10, including the Polish President and First Lady. My heart goes out to the families and the entire nation. I cannot imagine how losing so many must feel. The entire government was wiped away in one fell swoop and those left must seem paralyzed with grief.

Certainly I am sending prayers to Poland. Yet this story also brings home something amazing from our expat experience. The world is smaller to me now. We are more connected and effected by events that happen where we have been. Borders are no longer barriers to foreign lands, but convenient dividers of custom and culture.

We have traveled to Poland - three times. To Warsaw, Gdansk and to Krakow. They have been some of my very favorite trips. At first a little fearful of Poland with images of grey WWII gloom in my head, I was overwhelmed with the color and beauty of this country. The people are kind and warm-hearted. The food was surprisingly delicious and cheap! Many of my most beloved artists were Polish. I would return to Poland in a heartbeat.

And as Polish grief plays out on our televisions I am transported there through memories since we have visited St. Mary's Basilica where the President's state funeral Mass and procession took place and the Castle Hill where he will be entombed. We recognize sites in Warsaw where the initial images of grief emerged amidst a sea of votive candles.

My hope and wish is that even though Connor may be too young to remember that through this blog journal and photos she will feel a similar closeness with countries and people all over the world. It certainly will make World History and Geography come alive. We are saving Romanian money, European postcards, and many maps for a very international show-and-tell one day down the line!

Click here for an article I wrote about our initial visit to Poland (Krakow) for the AWCB newsletter.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where in the World are You Stranded?

Borrowing a theme from my friend stranded in Scotland - the travel chaos from "the volcano" whose name no one can pronounce is is the worst disruption in the history of aviation. Where in the world are YOU stranded?

I am taking my blog into 'real time' here to catch you up. Since our Barcelona trip we packed up our apartment, shipped our belongings over the ocean and said goodbye to wonderful friends. Kirk took leave from his job for several weeks and we have been traveling for nearly a month.

Clearly I will have to rewind and catch up on blogging at some point, as there is much to tell. But the highlights of our three part trip include:
1 - Lanzarote in the Canary Islands
2 - 10 day UK car trip circling England and Wales
3 - Eastern Europe (Romania, Slovenia, Hungary)

So, here we sit wrapping up our adventure in Budapest slated to fly back to Brussels on Tuesday PM and then to the USA for good on Thursday AM. Ummm. Not sure it is going to work out. We are in Day 4 of 23 European countries closing down airports and locking air space due to the volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
Since the volcano doesn't show signs of letting up - in fact just the opposite - we went ahead and bought refundable train tickets to at least get us back from Budapest to Brussels on Tuesday, should that flight be grounded. Not a fun extra expense, but it seems critical to at least be in place Thursday in hopes of our transatlantic flight taking off. Fingers crossed. After waiting through the ticket line I left feeling relieved that at least there would be some way back. Even if our wallets were a lot lighter. We are determined not to let a little ash rain on our parade!
So now we sit with the world and wait and watch as Mother Nature takes her course. I want so badly to be in control and to have a crystal ball to see how this will all play out. After eighteen months living away from the States, my heart and mind are ready to return as scheduled. But again as my friend elegantly reminded us, we are not in control. Only God is. Even and especially of volcanos. My family is together, happy and safe. Nothing matters more than that.