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Emily

10 things that are awesome right now

These are the hard times seasoned expats talk about. Missing out on simple gestures like gift swaps with siblings, shopping the lightening deals on Amazon, and signing up for who brings the bread rolls and who is on pie duty. The hustle and bustle of fitting in your own immediate family fun, while frantically and excitedly running off to the ‘rents and then to the in-laws.

Truth be told, I’m missing my family desperately. I totally wish I was there with them right this very second, but understand why we are apart and the value it holds. We are here in Belgium (only) three-ish years. Three big years to do big crazy things we could never do or see living in central Indiana. But yes, three big years away from so much family and friends that are as good as family.

 The tree is not that big and it cost an arm and an euro. But it smells amazing and makes me so freakishly happy. Happy holiday kickoff day!

So to compensate, I’m listing 10 things I’m thankful for right this very second. Random little bits, just off the top of my head, with as little thought involved per usual:

1. I have dedicated speakers in my kitchen (I got for my birthday) where I can plug in my computer, tune into NPR (English speaking!), and listen to American talk radio while I prep food. Since we’re somehow roundaboutly connected through a server computer thingy in Indy, my Pandora ads include Fox59 highlights, and I totally know Ray Cortopassi is still on my side.

2. Extra freezer and fridge space in the garage to supplement my bitty baby dorm-room sized European appliances in the kitchen. It’s a big deal, you guys.

3. Michael is always a willing participant to my weekend travel plans. Even though he works extremely hard all week and probably just wants to veg out on Saturday and Sunday, he’s still always (mostly) up for any adventures that get me out of the house. Last week I had him drive the family into France for a warehouse cookware sale, and this week I plan on him driving us into Germany for a Christmas market. Frohe Weihnachten!

 You betcha I got the family up early on a Sunday morning, drove 2 hours into northern France just to shop the Le Cruset once yearly factory sale.

4. My kids are not picky eater. Meaning, they’ll try anything once, and sometimes not like it at all. But they will always try it. And almost always like it. Also – food here is different, but in a mostly good way. But still, salsa and peanut butter be gone.

5. We have a working fireplace, something i haven’t had since a child and it’s a total dream to fire it up every chance we get.

 The kids are ready for the arrival of Sinterklaas tonight. We're embracing new cultural traditions, and embracing excuses to eat more chocolate. #expat

6. I found the one store (gas station!) in town that sells Kraft mac n’ cheese. It’s only $4 a box (complete eyeroll). But at least we can obtain it in the event of an emergency or 5th birthday.

7. Our netflix is hooked up and in good working order (which is actually a really big deal here, it’s not common). We’re (I’m) currently binging on Gilmore Girls, House MD, Hotel Impossible and Sons of Anarchy. Whatcha else got for me, hobos? It might be a long winter and I need to be prepared….

8. Today I took Paul to the doctor. It was our first time for this sort of thing and I’m glad to finally have it under our belt. It went much more smoothly than expected, and ho-boy health care in Belgium is wildly and beautifully different compared to the approach and protocol in the US. Also, I’m not complaining. I could (and probably should) write a whole post dedicated to this experience.

9. I feel like I’ve crossed a very *small* social hurdle. Slowly but surely, I’m finding my way and getting involved in activities that don’t directly revolve around my children. Think book club, signing up for running races this Spring, Mums night out, ect. It’s nothing major, but it does add up.

10. I wake up every morning and don’t feel complete loneliness. This is not me being dramatic, this is me being real. Moving away and across the globe from everything I have ever known has been difficult. I am by no means completely assimilated, I’ve just started to feel a shift in the tide.

So I’m doing ok. Things are looking up, possibly borderline awesome.

A pilgrimage to the motherland (AMSTERDAM! For the weekend)!

When we told our friends and family back in West Michigan that we were planning to move to Belgium, inevitably it would come up and they would say “you’ll be so close to the motherland!”.

You see, I’m 100% Dutch. My husband Michael is *mostly* Dutch (percentages unknown, I’ve decided I still love him, despite my non-Dutch inherited last name, le sigh).

And a freakish amount of our friends are Dutch. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Tall as the day is loooooong. My people you know who you are.

Because if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much. Am I right?

So when my mother-in-law planned her first visit to Belgium over the kid’s fall break, I knew we needed to take the family to see the montherland for a long weekend.

DAY 1:

We left Belgium late morning, en-route to a small dutch town called Huizen, which is only about two and a half hours from Brussels by car. I rented an old farmhouse for our group of seven through Airbnb, and it did not disappoint.

For our large family, staying in homes and apartments through Airbnb has been the only way I’ve found to travel cost-effectively through Europe. A house (and kitchen) to ourselves with a place for the kids to run? Well that beats two one-room hotel rooms (both economically and spatially) any day of the week.

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You guys, this view is what used to be the stables, where they kept the horses. I think it cleaned up well, don’t you?

After we settled into our home away from home, we drove into the quaint little town of Laren and did some window shopping.

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A domestic flock of deer in the middle of town? Why the heck not! (and where is my stale loaf of bread?!)

Eventually we wore ourselves hungry and exhausted, and found a great little pizza place that didn’t necessitate a reservation. It was also open at 5:30pm, which if you’ve ever been to Europe you know is like the holy grail of family dining with little kids. After dinner we drove back “home” and enjoyed an early to bed kind of night, because we had an early to rise kinda morning ahead of us.

DAY 2:

Trial and error has taught me that the best way for my family to travel is to have one structured activity planed in the city we’re exploring, and then a few other “if we get to it, we get to it” spots to hit up depending on everybody’s mood and attention span. And since my mother-in-law loves to bikes, I booked us for a three hour tour with We Bike Amsterdam. Because when in Amsterdam…

So bright and early in the morning, we left Huizen and picked up a quick 30 minute commuter train ride into the city.

While I’ll never do it justice in this post, our short time spent with our guide Thijs (co-owner of We Bike Amsterdam) was by far the highlight of the weekend. What I loved best about his tour was that he skipped many of the major tourist attractions, but instead took us though the many backstreets of the city.

He was beyond patient with our crew (we were a group of 7, four of which were little kids, one very spry 70 year old,  and oh and I hadn’t been on a bike in like 10 years), which means we became a traveling sideshow. Thijs was amazing, making many intentional stops to tell us about the history of the city, and pointing out interesting architectural features for the endless warehouses we encountered.

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I honestly cannot say enough good about We Bike Amsterdam, and I cannot recommend them enough. Who wants to visit Amsterdam? I know a bike tour….

After biking, we had a picnic lunch on the back lawns of the Rijksmuseum, where there is a fantastic free playground for kids. Because after you bike for three hours, you need to blow off steam, right?

Dinner was at yet another (yes we love it, and it’s a cheap way to feed a crowd) pizza place. We dined at La Perla, and I would highly recommend it for families with kids when visiting Amsterdam. But please, take the time to call ahead to make a reservation so you’re not disappointed – it’s a small space. 

DAY 3:

The third day of our trip we only had one goal: tour the Anne Frank House. Because I knew it was somewhat of a tourist “hot spot”, I admittedly purchased tickets the minute I knew we were planning a trip to Amsterdam, about 2 months in advance.

Protip: buying tickets in advance is an absolute must, especially if you have children. The exhibit is somewhat small and contained, and you weave from room to room in a single-file line at times. If you know you want to visit the house (which I highly recommend), book tickets in advance and you’ll save yourself a few hours standing in line outside.

And it wouldn’t be an accurate review if I failed to mention that I took my 4 kids (ages 10, 7, 5 and 2) through the house. In hindsight, I wish I wouldn’t have taken the younger two through. Maybe it was because I wanted to believe that they could be well-behaved to handle it, or I didn’t really know what I was walking into. But regardless, my advice is that it’s a somber and somewhat religious experience, so gauge your children’s maturity.  I personally spent a lot of time begging the boys to be quite, as to not disturb other guests.

Additionally, I would also highly recommend reading the book, as having Anne’s story and journey very fresh in my mind made it all that more real. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos to share from the house or museum, as they kindly request no photos and I obliged.

After the Anne Frank house, our crew headed to the The Pancake Bakery, a place absolutely perfect for both large parties and young kids.

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What we loved here was that they totally catered to children, had attentive service, and really tasty comfort food. I would recommend calling in for a reservation, as I know the house gets packed on the weekends.

After a filling up on a traditional Dutch pancake lunch, we rolled on out onto the city streets for a few last minute souvenir shopping moments (cheese slicers and tulip bulbs!) and a bit of sight seeing as we headed back to the train station.

 Later Amstergater. Time to head out and put up our tried weary feet.

I know I ask a lot of the kids when we travel. But hopefully in return there is a lot of adventure, a lot of exploring, and a lot of fun too. Tonight Gage fell deep asleep riding the train back into the countryside. He even unconsciously leaned into (and

(Yes, he totally leaned in and fell asleep on that old lady’s arm. And yes, she loved every minute of it.)

It was a action packed, super fun weekend, and I absolutely cannot wait to come back now that I’ve gotten a better lay of the motherland.

So who’s next? Which of my Dutch friends can I show off my new pride and joy?

International school daze

One of the most frequent questions I get asked from friends back home is: how are the kids liking and adjusting to school?

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The short answer? Really well. So well. They are thriving, making tons of friends, and getting involved in after-school activities.

But there’s always a longer answer.

So for those interested, I’ll break it down in more detail per child. Given we just moved from your average Midwest public system to a private international school in Europe, there might be some difference. Just maybe.

Our day starts around 8:10am when we walk down our long driveway en route to school. We’re extremely fortunate to live within walking distance to campus, which incidentally was the top selling point to the house (other than the windmill view from the kitchen sink).

We can be on school grounds in just a few hops skips and jumps, and I get a mile or two worth of exercise every morning thanks to the commute. Because if you’ve ever lived in Europe, you know the croissant struggle is real. And yes we have to walk passed a patisserie (aka fresh bread shop!) to get to school every morning.

And I was foggy rather groggy.

Piper: Piper is a fourth grader this year, in an English speaking classroom. In Indy, she attended a school for high ability students, so she is used to the bar being set exceptionally set. As far as I can tell, she’s doing really well at the new school and loving everything. Truth: I’m not surprised at all. Our main struggle is finding her enough English written books to read, as she doesn’t love her kindle, something I can sympathies with. After school she’s learning how to play soccer and will finally start violin lessons next week, something she’s really enjoyed back home thanks to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

 Nola: Nola is in the 2nd grade, and enrolled in a dual-language classroom. This means that every Monday, Wednesday and 1/2 of Friday her day is spoken exclusively in French. Even if she goes to a “special” like PE or art, it’s all in French. Also, half her homework is in French. Needless to say, we’ve had some challenging moments at home with getting through homework and then anxiety for the coming day. I’m so very proud of her and her continued French comprehension. Nola has also been loving after school art club and has join an international chapter of Girl Scouts Brownies. She’s adorable and I can’t wait for her to start selling Thin Mints.

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Gage: Gage is in a dual language pre-k program. He goes 5 days a week, from 8:30am – 3:30pm. And for someone who’s never been in school, he’s surviving. One thing I regret about our previous year in Indiana was not sending him to preschool. He basically went from being home with me full time to going to school full time. I’ll be honest here, group settings for him have been a learning experience. You can’t kick friends. Personal space is a real thing. But for someone who’s never gone to school and then the first experience the teacher is speaking a foreign language, I’m proud of him.

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Me & Paul: With the big kids in school, Paul and I are hanging out just the two of us for one more year. Come next September, baby Paul will be enrolled in school just like his siblings (Europeans start em’ early), so the time right now is super sweet. We fill our days with figuring out the lay of the land, and sometimes just trying to run a few simple errands can take all day. I’ve recently started French lessons which is basically the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, but am committed to sticking with it. Soon I hope to join an American women’s club so the two of us can make friends and get involved.

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 Overall, we’re doing good. We are being stretched and challenged every single day in ways I would have never dreamed, and becoming incredibly flexible in the process. There are extreme highs, and there are moments of low low low.

And really, isn’t that the bones to any good adventure?

 

A birthday weekend in Cologne, Germany.

Over the past few months living here in Belgium, I’ve come to love many things, one of them being the amount of national and public holidays Belgians observe. Belgians like their days off, something I can wholeheartedly get behind and support.

And last week, Michael and the kids had off from both school and work, which was super convenient timing because HELLO BIRTHDAY WEEKEND for Piper and me. No school, no work, another year in the books to be celebrated – yes a road trip was in order. This time, to Cologne Germany (just two and a half hours away from home). 

The really cool thing about living in Belgium is that it’s so incredibly centrally located to a ton of awesome places. Paris is only three hours away, Amsterdam is three hours away in the other direction, you can get to the North Sea in under two hours, and you can drive into Germany in less than one.

DAY ONE:

We left mid-morning on Saturday, stopped for lunch on the road at Burger King, (I know, but Michael had to get it out of his system) and headed into the heart of Cologne to do some sightseeing and window shopping.

One of my favorite things to try is street food that is specific to the region we’re visiting. I immediately spied people lining up at this cart to buy little paper cones filled with some sort of snack. I needed to know what was in the cone, and at only 2 euros a piece, I sent Piper shopping.

Maronen. Also know as Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Our little cone came with about eight or so chestnuts, perfect for everyone to have a taste.

No we do not like roasted chestnuts.

This little snack of chestnuts taught us a very valuable lesson:

1. know what you’re eating.

2. know how to eat it.

You guys, chestnuts do not taste very good if you just pop them in your mouth as-is. They need to be shelled like a proper nut (I know, whodathunk?). The first go-around, Piper and I did not shell ours – instead just popping the roasted little sucker right in our mouth. Also: gross. Also: any German watching us and our reaction probably got a pretty good laugh at our expense.

At this point the snack was lost on us, even after we figured out how to shell them properly. At least we tried and gave it a go, I guess.

Next up we walked around the beautiful Cologne Cathedral in all it’s Gothic glory. Having an interior design degree and given the amount of art history classes I took in college, it’s absolutely fascinating to finally be able to see what I had previously only read about in textbooks.

The DOM in Cologne, Germany.

After touring the cathedral, we walked across the famous Rhine river via a beautiful footbridge (no photos here folks, I was admittedly afraid of heights and fearful for my children’s well-being, even though they were perfectly safe) and did some shopping.

 Cologne, in Cologne.

The girls each picked out a small bottle of iconic 1411 cologne (because when in Cologne that’s what you do) and then we headed out to dinner. Dinner was at a super fun (and super huge, loud, inexpensive) beer hall called Frueh am Dom which serves their own house brew, Fruh Kolsch.  Again, me being always up for an adventure ordered something off the “chef specialty” list called Schlachtplatte.

I’ll spare you the plate photo (I’m no food blogger) but let me just mention that my dish was a combination platter of liver dumplings, pickled pork, boiled bacon and black pudding served on a bed of sour kraut and mashed potatoes. Basically a big ole’ pile of German. Also make note: I’m now adding “learn to read German” to my ever-growing assimilation to-do list.

After dinner we found the car and headed out of the city to our rental apartment (through Airbnb, which I highly recommend, it’s the only way our family of 6 travels affordability) where we tucked the kids in and got ready for day two.

DAY TWO:

Sunday we woke up (my 36th birthday, yes I had to do the math, secretly hoping I was turning only 35) and headed to an indoor water park called Aqualand. (exactly how a 36 year old female would want to spend her special day, right?).

Aqualand.

 Watersides, whirlpools and lazy rivers. I didn’t take any interior shots, and that’s ok. We spent eight hours tiring out the kids before heading back to the apartment for a quick pizza dinner and OMG bed.

DAY THREE:

On Monday (Piper’s 10th birthday), the plan was to pack up and head to Bonn, about 25 minutes south-ish to the Haribo Factory Store.

 At the haribo factory outlet store!

Yes, THE GUMMY BEAR STORE.

We knew going in that they didn’t do tours of the actual factory given that it’s a food facility, but our research said the destination wasn’t to be missed regardless. Guys, I don’t even really like candy, but I have a soft (or shall I say sticky) spot for Haribo gummies.

I love them. Open a bag, finished it within the afternoon. Not sharing, hands of momma’s chewies.

 Gummy!

We spent around 45 minutes and 30 euros at the store, walking out with an epic assortment. And yes, there’s a nice sized kids area which includes some gummy bear history and memorabilia to look at and kill a few some time (aka where I sent the family while I finished up shopping).
free kiddo ride at the haribo factory.

Clutching our bags of sweets, we headed back to Belgium by way of the autobahn (holy speed, batman!) to conclude the celebration weekend. Piper decided to forgo a traditional birthday cake and instead chose German “berliners” for her evening celebration.

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Kid, it’s been a good 10 years. We had a great weekend, and I hope you always remember your 10th birthday spent in beautiful Germany. Cheers to many more crazy adventures…

Three months later and all is well-ish.

I haven’t written in a really (really) long time. So long that I had to google how to get into the dashboard of the blog. And then I had to troubleshoot my very own password. And if I can be completely candid, the lack of updates isn’t because I’ve been busy.  I mean, I have been busy, certainly never a dull moment, but being busy has never stopped me from blogging in the past.

I just needed a break I guess. Time to process and reflect the move on my own terms.

But well, here we are in Belgium, which is really far away from Indiana I’m realizing. And I know you’re dying to find out how the past three months have been for our family, right?

Well, they’ve been great in a “this will make us stronger, we’ll look back at this and laugh someday, mama said there’d be days like this” sort of way.

We’re together, we’re healthy (although Gage is home from school sick with a mild fever today), and we’re doing our best each and every day to create a new normal – which is finally starting to happen slowly and surely. We’re finding our way doing normal everyday stuff like dentist appointments, soccer practices, pet sitting the neighbor’s dog and spending an inordinate amount of time translating food labels from French (or Dutch, or German) to English.

I want to share a thousand beautiful moments we’ve spent here already, and maybe tell of a few hard and challenging times as well. Good thing I have a blog and know (finally, again) how to use it.

Hopefully someday soon these stories will start to trickle out onto the blog, but for now here’s a few moments from the highlight reel (also known as my Instagram feed):

the first 3 months

First Row:

1. Taking the kids downtown Brussels to see the bi-annual Flower Carpet installed in the Grand Place. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and I’m glad we caught it in all it’s botanical glory.

2. Finally starting school, which proved to be the first step to creating a much needed routine! Piper, Nola and even Gage started school at the end of August, and it was just what we all needed after the most hectic summer of our lives. One of the main selling points of the house we found was it’s proximity to campus. We’re walkers, which makes me very happy (except when it’s raining, which happens far too much) not to have to get in the car twice a day for pick-up and drop-off.

3. Our first visitor arrives! In somewhat of an awesome whim, my youngest sister Betsy decided to visit towards the end of August. We packed in a ton of sightseeing, beer drinking and chocolate eating into her stay, including weekend trips to Amsterdam and Paris.

Second Row:

1. Paris, oh Paris. Michael and I both said before we even moved here that our first stop would be to show the kids Paris and of course the Eiffel Tower. Needless to say when we finally made it, Paris did not disappoint.

2. Our second visitor arrives, Nana! Over the kids fall break, Michael’s mom braved her first ever transcontinental (and alone too!) flight to spend a few weeks hanging out with us. We stayed extremely busy, with quick trips to Ghent, Bruge, Knokke (all in Belgium), Paris and Amsterdam.

3. Finding that perfect breakfast coffee shop in town. Europeans LOVE their coffee and pastries, and while Nana was here we shopped around, trying out a few cafes.

Third Row:

1. The Sunday morning routine. Many friends and family have asked if we’ve found a church to attend here in Brussels. The short and uncomplicated answer? Nope, not yet. So while we sort through that situation, we’re enjoying a Sunday routine that includes visiting our town’s weekly farmers market and flea market.

2. Celebrating. A hard parts of moving here is knowing not all the holidays we celebrate back in the USA are celebrated here in Europe. Thankfully, even though Halloween isn’t a Belgian holiday, our neighborhood hosted a trick-or-treat night on October 23rd, the night before fall break started.

3. Opening up our home. It’s no secret that while I’m not the best in the kitchen, I absolutely love cooking for others and having a full table of friends and family brings me great joy. Admittedly, meeting people and making friends has been very slow going (speaking for my introverted self, the kids are doing great and very social). But last week we had our first ever guests over for dinner.

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Ok, so now that I’ve given a small update as to what we’ve been doing and got that awkward “oh hey I haven’t blogged in three months but made a major life change” post out of the way, I’m opening it up to you guys. Anything you’re dying to know about our life here?

Don’t make me follow this post up with an embarrassing story about me learning how to drive around here – I have too many (with varying degrees of public and private humiliation) to pick from. 

Rain or shine, a day-trip to Ghent is good.

We’ve been in Belgium now only two weeks and I’m already feeling the push to start traveling. I mean, Europe is so vast, how on earth will we see it all in just three short years? And what if for some reason we’re only here two years? The struggle is real.

We’re starting small with a few day very manageable day-trips. Fortunately for us, living in Brussels means that there is SO VERY MUCH to see and do within an hour or two car drive. So saturday morning, we headed to Ghent, Belgium – just an hour and a half from home.

ghent canal

A few things worth noting. This was our very first “adventure”, and I learned a lot about family travel in Europe in just one attempt.

1. Just because it’s sunny at home when you leave does not mean it will be sunny and warm at your destination. We worn shorts, t-shirts, ect. heck, I packed sunscreen. The reality was that it was cold and rainy the whole day, even though we were just 90 minutes up the road. Next time we all leave the home with sweatshirts and rain jackets, at least packed away in the car. Oh, and an umbrella or two would have been nice.

2. Have a plan that includes where to park. Sure, I planned what we were going to do, and where we were going to eat, but knowing where to park trumps everything else on the agenda. Learned that one the hard way.

3. Take enough cash. Unlike the US, where you can plop down your credit card for almost everything, that’s not the case here in Europe. More than a few times we’ve tried to pay with our card, only to be told they take cash only. Michael learned this the hard (and embarrassing way) a few weeks back…

wet kids

Ok, on with the day.

Like I mentioned above, we dressed ourselves and our four children totally inappropriately for the day. Michael and I had hoodies (which we rotated through the kids), but everyone else was dressed as if they still lived in hot and sweaty Indiana. The plan was to visit Gravensteen, a medieval castle located right in the center of the city – but with the tourist crowds and the cruddy weather, we decided to skip it and just seek shelter instead. Moving on was probably a good choice, although I know Gage would have really gotten a kick out of the tour, given his current fascination with swords and anything medieval (emphases on the “evil”).

medevil castle

Seeking lunch felt like the perfect next step. And since eating in Europe with six people is almost always a budget-bender, we headed to a place called Pizza Gulhan, known for not only their affordability but quality as well. You guys, best idea ever. Perfect for kids, amazing food, and our family of six walked out of the place completely full for only 25 euros. And yes, we even had a couple drinks.

the pizza and the egg

Soft eggs on your pie? Go for it, you won’t be sad. At the end of the meal, the kids were treated to Turkish Delight (with mixed reviews, Paul scarfed it up), and Michael and I enjoyed complimentary after-dinner drinks of some unidentifiable orange dessert liqueur. Whatever it was, gimme moar.

turkish delight(holding it up like it’s the freakin’ Lion King or something)

Since it was (still!) raining, after lunch, we decided to call it a short day and head back to the car by way of Ghent’s famous graffiti alley, Werregarenstraat. The kids were impressed, and maybe a little bit inspired too.

graffiti row

Overall, it was a bummer that it rained on our fist attempt at European travel, but we still had a blast. We will be back, probably sooner than later, and hopefully the sun (or at least dry weather) will be on our side.