Week Seventy-One

This weekend Jason and I were able to travel to Vienna, Austria without the kids thanks to Pop & NéeNée who watched them while we got out of town. Vienna is a city that neither Jason nor I had been to before which always works out well for us. No one feels like they are leading each other around and we get to discover it together. I had been told that Vienna is much larger than you think and the two days we were spending there wouldn’t even get a majority of Vienna “seen”. That was definitely true advice. We both had such a nice time there though it is on our short list of cities to return to again.

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We hoped into our cab after our early morning flight and met Helmut. He was a happy guy who liked to preach about positive attitudes and the power of anti-oxidant pills. He had two daughters from his first marriage that he didn’t see much anymore but had a dog who loves walks in the forest.

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At first blush Vienna looks like most European cities. Beautiful buildings, pedestrian closed streets, outdoor cafés serving spaghetti bolognese and ridiculous amounts of shopping.

Vienna1And lots of love of the word Wiener (You probably already know fact:  the word “Wiener”means “Viennese”, since the actual German name for Vienna is Wien)

DSC02923But as you dig down and get to see more of the city open up you are struck by its beauty.  The Viennese have a love for classical architecture and romantic style.  As a city with so much history it makes you wonder why you didn’t learn more about it in school, other than the basic Austrian-Hungarian blurbs.
The building on your right above is the Opera house.  However during World War II an American pilot mistook it for a train station and unleashed a bombing raid.  He missed the Opera House but hit an apartment building to the left and it collapsed onto the 200 citizens who were hiding in the basement entombing them underneath.

DSC02800These statues are built upon that site to remind all of the horrific nature of war.

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I’m sure the four rivers fountain would have been prettier without this guy in it.

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Like our tour book said, if you look above all the mainstream stores (H&M, Zara, GAP, etc) you can imagine what central Vienna used to look like in its days of grandure.

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Another thing I liked about Vienna were its churches. I like my churches good and gothic, the more ornate and ridiculous the better. In Italy I found most of the Renaissance churches completely disappointing and dull (save the Sistine Chapel of course). But here in Vienna, they were gorgeous.

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After visiting central Vienna we walked to the Hofburg Palace.

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And see kids, this is why you have to learn all that “pointless” stuff in school. One day you will be presented with life in front of you and the ability to understand/recognize it leaves quite the feeling of satisfaction. The Hapsburg Royal Family loved Greek Mythology and had the 12 labors of Hercules presented as statues along the palace walls. I was only able to find 8 of them. Either there are only 8 or there are 4 hiding somewhere else that I couldn’t see.

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DSC02875The view from the side of the palace towards City hall.

DSC02872The famous balcony from which Hitler addressed the Viennese people after capturing Austria.

For the second half of the first day, we took a bike tour around Vienna and got a true picture of how large the city is. Three hours of near constant biking, my legs were so exhausted I almost didn’t make it to dinner but I’m glad I pushed through. We ate at the Palais Coburg where I ate almost enough to replace the calories burned that day.

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Random picture.  The public bathrooms in Vienna are fantastic.  Just an FYI here.  They also aren’t annoyed with restrooms in general like most other cities.  Almost every place you walk into the restrooms are clearly marked and it is no big deal if you have to use them.  In Paris (and Brussels), you practically need a map to find one, then have to beg to use it and it is never a pleasant experience.

DSC02885The next morning we awoke to a drop in temperature (about 30 degrees worth!) and rain.

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DSC02893We planned to go back to some of the sights we saw on our bike tour (since I didn’t bring my camera on the tour) and take a few pictures and see things in more detail.  However, the cold rain and chilly wind forced us to have a change of plans.

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Instead we spent the day in and out of several Viennese coffee houses and restaurants. A relaxing and much better plan. I finished a book cover to cover and dined on crisp apple strudels with cream, fried potatoes and lots of tea/coffee/wine/beer.

The city, much like every other city on the planet has its downfalls.  The rise of kitsch, commercialism, immigration tensions, and economic strife, but all in all I have to say I sort of fell in love with Vienna.  Laid back with class, happy people, and fantastic food.

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DSC02826If you wear six inch heels on streets with uneven surfaces, cobblestone and look like a wounded deer trying to maneuver in them, I’m going to take your picture.

DSC02856Also if you make amazing chocolate cakes right in front of me and ask me not to take a picture, I’m going to have to break that rule.

As you can tell by the quality of these pics, I chose not to bring my large camera on this trip.  Instead I opted for my pocket camera.  Sometimes you just need a break from seeing a city through a lens pressed up against your face the whole time.  It was rather freeing and my neck is also thankful.
I dumped all the pics I took into this slideshow, take a gander if you have the time.

We had a great trip and it was good to get away.  It was also great to come home to my babies and celebrate Mother’s Day.  Pop & NéeNée hoped on a plane Sunday morning to Italy and I’ve spent the day doing a whole lot of nothing.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mommy and all the other moms out there.  Hope your weekend was grand!

DSC_5005 DSC_5021*Zane and Lily pics thanks to NéeNée

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Week Seventy

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This week Pop & NéeNée have come to visit from Texas.  Once they arrived it was non-stop immersion into our lives here in Brussels.  They visited the kids school, went with us for a picnic in the forest with friends, took a trip to the zoo and visited Central Brussels, Bruges and the Meuse Valley.  Be warned, if you come to visit us, you won’t be doing much sitting.  Except sitting in traffic, because as we are approaching summer traffic is getting worse by the day.

photo-2 photo-3Having fun at the zoo

photo-4Playing at Maredsous Abbey

photo-6Enjoying the actual heat wave we were experiencing!

photo-7Enjoying local specialties before noon at our Market

photo-8And at long last the Blue Bells Forest finally bloomed its Blue Bells, only about a month late.

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Week Sixty-Nine Part Two

I’m likin’ Laeken

Ok. I admit. I have stayed out of Laeken for the most part. It is an integral part of Brussels but I haven’t made my way over there. The crime rate is high. A dude was murdered there a few months ago. But, it is where the residence of the Royal family is located. I had a free morning so I headed over to Laeken with my doors locked. What I found sort of surprised me. It really wasn’t that bad, everyone had been warning me of a terrible place and really…nope.
Each year the Royal Family opens it’s grounds and greenhouses to the general public for a few weeks. You pay a small entry fee and get to tour around. But you are forbidden to walk on the grass. Which is a shame because it is beautiful and HUGE. I am also glad I did not bring the kids because they would have been bored to tears and really upset that they couldn’t run around on the sprawling lawns in front of them.
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The greenhouse structures themselves are beautiful.  They were designed by Alphonse Balat, who was the teacher of Victor Horta (for those architecture nerds out there). But what I was shocked to find was an underwhelming representation of plant life. Maybe it’s because I lived in Miami in a tropical climate and saw some of the most amazing flora you can imagine on a regular basis, but I found myself completely underwhelmed. The other visitors were walking around amazed and asking themselves, what is this! what is that! and I just sort of shrugged like…ya, I used to have those in my front yard. Yep, those grew next to my bathroom. I’ve lived here long enough that I know have the right to be critical of things and not simply amazed by them. I also found it completely annoying that they didn’t have any of the plants labeled. People want to know what they are. Where they come from. Some fun fact. But alas, there was nothing.
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The one impressive thing I found was the height of the Geraniums.  That takes a lot of careful planning and tending.

IMG_7121IMG_7110I also like the way they used Forsythia as hedging. This is a is a view from the back towards Brussels central.

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IMG_7087No idea.  Looks like a cross between an orchid and a begonia?  Anyone?

IMG_7105Various Bromeliads

IMG_7102Salmon Geraniums

IMG_7090 IMG_7134Fuchsia

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IMG_7164Tulip Tree

IMG_7170Notre Dame of Laeken

After visiting I had more time so I went over to the Laeken cemetery.   It has been on my bucket list of things to do while in Brussels so I am glad to cross it off.  The cemetery is most known for the art work adorning many of the grave sites.  Pictures are not allowed in the cemetery so I snapped a few on my phone while no one was looking.  Sorry Laeken 🙂photo 2 photo 5_3 photo 3 photo 2_2_2 photo 1_3Rodan’s first draft of The Thinker.  Rodan’s teacher lived in Brussels and Rodan worked here for a few years before relocating.  Not bad for his first try in bronze before casting the real one (and housed in Paris at the Rodin Museum).

Overall not a bad trip.  I wanted to visit the crypts but they had them closed off for cleaning.  I also meant to make it to the Basilica on my way home but ran out of time, I’ll be back over to the north part of Brussels soon.

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Week Sixty-Nine

Week Sixty-Nine-ish kinda. More like, what snapshots can I find on my iPhone? Let’s see!

photo 1Lately Lily is into drawing all her favorite stories.  Here is Rapunzel.

photo 3Zane is still into being naked and DESTROYING the living room/dining room at any chance he gets.  Here, I was downstairs doing laundry, 20 minutes later…a mess.

photo 2And Bailey is still into sleeping.

photo 3We are taking a break from traveling for a bit this week to relax.  I do love to travel but it does get exhausting.  Above, a nice moment from Prague the other week.

DSC02778I am having a great time with the international community of ISB, the children’s school.  Here was a pottery night where we drank wine.  I mean, got crafty.

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photo 1Speaking of the kid’s school, I forgot to post these pictures from a while ago but their school hosted its annual International Festival.  It kicks off with a parade of nations.  It’s like being at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, except the athletes are tiny.  I worked the morning shift at the American booth where we sold hot dogs, root beer floats and Bud Light.

At school in their classrooms, the kids are finishing up a unit of learning entitled “Out and About”.  They walk and take city buses to different businesses in the neighborhood and learn about what goes into each business.  Learning that different places are for different things.  Remember, there are no Super-Walmarts here so we actually have to go different places for different things!  We went to a laundromat, a bakery, a florist, and a grocery store.

While Nana was in town, she got to help chaperone one of these field trips to the Florist.

IMG_5681This construction is called “typical.”

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IMG_5743Oh, Zane.

photo 2Grocery store visit.

photo 1Speaking of Nana’s visit a few weeks ago, we went to the zoo and also technopolis.  The kids were so excited to show Nana around some of their favorite places.  BUT, as is typical tradition, we didn’t take any pictures of Nana with Zane and Lily.  We are normally having so much fun it isn’t until after we get home that we say, did you take any pictures? No, did you??  ARRRRGGGG!

But, here is a video of the house that Nana and I built for Zane and Lily.  I wish I could buy these blocks but they are over 500 dollars for only 75 of them!


The video cuts out but yes the little house of bricks DID come tumbling down.

photo 4The other weekend we took a trip out to the Blue Bell forest to have a picnic with some friends.  However, it has been so cold here, that no Blue Bells were in sight!

photo 5Eating, drinking, making sure no one loses an eye over sharp pointy sticks.

photo 5Elmar, Lily and Léa are all in the same class at school, Zane did not come on this trip with us.  When asked he said he wanted to stay home.  Then, later, he saw the pictures and was so sad he didn’t join in.  Next time.

photo 4Little monkeys

photo 5LOOK, I lied.  I did find one Blue Bell.  Pathetic little thing.

The sun is out and spring MAY actually be here, highs have been in the low 50s all the way up to the 60s.  Fingers crossed.

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Week Sixty-Eight

Jason had been gone all week on a business trip to Prague, Czech Republic so the kids and I decided to join him to check out the city. I have always heard people tell me that Prague “is beautiful”. I really expected it to be like any other European city but nope, they were right. Prague IS beautiful. If you are a fan of architecture, this is the city for you.  The only exception being the communist era tenement housing on the outskirts of the city. Very ugly, very depressing.

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I have to say that overall there were two random things I loved about Prague.

IMG_6847This guy and his friends who kept the streets clean.  Typically, most European cities are dirty, full of trash and smell a bit like pee.  But I was super impressed by how clean Prague keeps its city.

IMG_6952The second thing I love are the small cobbled wide sidewalks.  Plenty of room to walk with the kids without fear of getting side swiped by a car and quite pretty.

IMG_6968Ok, and I was a big fan of these potato snacks.

IMG_6839Our day started off with a short plane flight (1 hr 30 min) into Prague. We hit the town and had a nice dinner. Both the kids seemed to be in good spirits so I thought it was going to be a lovely travel weekend.

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IMG_6863or so I thought.

DSC02701The hotel we stayed at (The Intercontinental) had “free” breakfasts and it was really impressive.  TONS of food and lots of variety, we seemed to be off to a good start on Saturday morning and ready to hit the town.

photoBut no.  They didn’t want to.  Whine. Whine. Whine. said these two little piggies.  They didn’t care about the sights or the city, they just wanted to go back to the hotel, order room service and swim in the pool.  They are 4, I don’t blame them.
So, since Jason travels to Prague quite often, he took the kids back to the hotel room and I hit the town.  I love him.

IMG_6845This astronomical clock puts on a show at each hour…

IMG_7009and the crowds love it.

DSC02753Beautiful Prague.

DSC02761The backstreets.

IMG_6868Prague at night is lovely.  Here, in front of town hall, you can see 27 crosses indicating where 27 rebel leaders were beheaded following the Battle of White Mountain in 1620.

IMG_6889This old Jewish cemetery holds coffins up to 7 deep.  Jews were only given this small plot to be buried  and it is estimated up to 100,000 are buried here.

DSC02704The Old New Synagogue which is Europe’s oldest active synagogue.  When the Nazi’s took over Prague during WWII it was not destroyed because Hitler wanted to make it into a shrine, a museum of sorts to boast of the history of the Jews decimation.

IMG_6971Paris street.

DSC02723I listened in on this tour group and got caught.  He was simply explaining the Velvet Revolution that took place in this square.

DSC02737The Charles Statue in front of the Charles Bridge

DSC02739The Old Town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astonishing civil gothic-style buildings in the world.  It is quite stunning as you round the corner and see it head on for the first time.  I found a door in the side and learned I could climb it to the top.  I did and was the only one (?)  Felt sort of empowering to be the only one up there looking down at all the people.

DSC02750View from the top overlooking the Charles Bridge.

DSC02731Prague has a new reputation as THE new bachelor party place to be.  I saw many stag parties…large groups of guys wearing matching T-Shirts, walking around, acting like jerks, grabbing women, flirting with the Thai massage ladies and leaving their trash everywhere.  I hope a crack down on behavior happens soon, probably only when the money from their nights’ out slow down though.

IMG_6908Duuuuuude! Czech us out…huh huh huh huh….

IMG_6914Wenceslas square.  Yes that one, the good king.  And it is actually a rectangle and not a square….

IMG_6946Coolest statue I saw.

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Because he was stuck with the kids at the hotel all day, when I got back, we tag-teamed and Jason went out on the town while I stayed back and played with the kids at the hotel.  We went swimming, ate things we probably shouldn’t have and had a grand ol’ time.

IMG_7017One of the statues on the Charles Bridge at night.

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IMG_7066St. Vitus Cathedral

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My favorite picture I took while there.  Because this is exactly how our weekend in Prague felt.

I hope when the kids are in a better mood we can return to Prague.  It is easy to get to, easy to navigate and some place I think we could spend a few more days in.  We only got to see a fraction of the city but it what I did see, I loved.

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Feeling Homesick

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“Do you know anyone there?”, has been a popular question posed to me this morning. “Do you know anyone in that town that blew up?” What is hard to explain to those not from Texas is that you don’t have to be personally involved with anyone from the small town of 2700 people in West, Texas to feel the immense pain and loss in your heart normally associated with losing a loved one. It is difficult to explain to those not Texas born and bred about what it means to be Texan.
Texan’s know each other. We know know the people, the hard workers, the families, the youth pastors, the ma & pa shops and places like The Czech Stop. We are nice, ready-to-help, fun loving, family oriented, kind people. We don’t understand why you don’t return our smile when we walk by or return our wave if we pass your car on a small street. People who meet Texans, especially those from up north or Europeans, often feel uneasy because our strong desire to love and to help can feel a little strange to those not used to it.
As Pat Green said, “When you live in West Texas you can’t just exactly go somewhere…” Although he was referring to geography and not the specific city it still rings true. The Road trip is an as essential and ingrained part of Texas life. You pick up and drive down the interstate of your choice and pass small town after town after town of our people. Within these small towns you find places to eat, places to rest, good people and local specialties.
In West, Texas there is the Czech Bakery that is a drooling point of anyone I assure you. Light airy bread dough surrounding an ewey-gooey middle of your choosing. My favorite has always been strawberries and cream cheese. Or warm sausage and cheese kolaches fresh from the oven.
When driving, for example from Austin to Dallas, it is practically a crime not to stop at this place and get a box to go to bring it to whomever you are visiting for the weekend.
So, when bad things happen to good people, good people that are our extended Texan family… memories of childhood, college years and beyond flood your mind until you cry. These people are good honest hard workers. No one will be there to write a huge check and make it all go away. The survivors will be combing through their belongings for weeks trying to piece together their lives so that they can continue on. Days missed from work will not be reimbursed. Photographs are not saved on expensive external hard drives and family heirlooms like christening gowns or the family bible are not simply replaced.
I hurt for these people, these Texans, these family members. I hope those who are not an ocean away will get in their trucks and cars and go do something. Donate clothes, blood, and money, or perhaps, when the smoke clears, take another road trip down to West and help clean up and rebuild.

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Why is there a wound?

Essay link: The Band Aid Rip

A recent blog entry post has been circling the interwebs and I have seen it forwarded on and on through my different sets of expat circles and communities. The author speaks about how the expat relocation must be dealt with like a band-aid removal. Whether it be fast and quick or slow and careful, it is always painful. After reading it through a few times something felt unsettling about it. I had to ask, but where is the wound?

What was this bandaid covering? What wound did she acquire in the first place that required her to put a friendship bandage over herself?

I pondered this thought for quite sometime over lunch today and think I’ve dug deep enough into my iPad screen as well as myself. I feel for Ms. Catherine and her pains but I see an inherent issue in expatica too. The wound is within ourselves and our own insecurity.

“…I’ve become just as hardened. I’ve closed ranks – not to be elitist, simply to self protect. I find I now align myself primarily with “lifers”- expats who are here for the long, long haul. Hypocrisy, irony… the lines are too blurred for me to distinguish between them…”

I champion her ability to open-up and admit these inner feelings but I challenge current or future expat women to straighten their posture, stay positive and rise above this rationale.

Having lived in four different places in the past 4 years I too know the psychological toll that constantly picking up and moving with your children can do to a gal. But I challenge her and everyone who sympathized with her essay to think less inwardly and think more outwardly towards “them”; “them” being the others.

Not inviting people into your circle simply due to fear of being hurt totally goes against the reason we ladies picked up and decided to do this whole expat adventure anyway! Any woman who has been expated will be able to tell you about her first chapter upon arrival. Getting thrown back into high school and being the girl with new braces and a bad haircut has never been so painful. Exposed and terrified the tendency is to revert to survival mode and join a pack. Seek out the alphas and scrounge for acceptance. Alphas tend to be the ones who have been around the longest but also tend to be the most hardened as she freely admits. I’m here to say, don’t do that.

Don’t reject or keep potential new friends at arms length because you don’t know what is in it for you. When is the last time you talked to someone you didn’t know? Someone of a different mother tongue, someone of a different religion, someone with a different skin tone? Today? Yesterday? or “um….”? When is the last time you invited a new child over for a play date instead of the same rotation of children? You know those new boys and girls in the class this year? They want to get into a circle too, they want to go on trips and be invited to birthday parties just as desperately as you did as soon as you arrived.

Exclusivity breeds nothing but pain. Rejecting new people or new environments based on fear or shoe style shows our children that the openness and welcoming garble we keep throwing at them should be done only as you say, not as you do. Go ahead, invite someone different on a lunch date. See the woman standing in the corner at school pick up taping away at her phone, do you know her name or have you already decided she is not worth your time. When you open yourself, your circle, your Facebook front, your clique and your children to inclusivity you will find the pain of leaving isn’t as painful for you or for them. There were no wounds to put a bandaid over in the first place. Leaving is hard, we can all agree with that. However, the next step is there and ready for you, if you enter it while looking backwards you may miss out on some really great people…some great people who may simply choose to wear flip flops.

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Week Sixty-seven

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We departed Brussels as a new blanket of snow had fallen over the city and spent all last week soaking up some Tuscan sun. Ok, well the first few days we didn’t because it was cold and cloudy. But we pretended.

Our trip was everything I expected it to be yet also everything I did not expect it to be. (well, duh, but that sounded better in my head). We arrived at our “hotel” which was actually a working olive grove and wine vineyard.

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After turning off of the paved road, we drove 10 minutes down a dirt road through the country side a little hesitant about that decision. But, after crossing a babbling stream (seriously) we arrived at these gates which welcomed us in.

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See not kidding, a peaceful, tranquil areyoukiddingme babbling brook that we crossed over by dirt bridge.

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Then we drove through the gates and up the mountainside.

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Passing old grapevines and olive trees, until we arrived on top of the hill and were greeted warmly and shown our house room.

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It was simply amazing. You will need to check out the video at the bottom of this blog entry to see the room in full.

After settling in a bit we unpacked and learned we were the only people staying at this farm, hotel, B&B, hamlet, paradise whatever you want to call it. Therefore, we had a personal chef who cooked us breakfast and dinner each night and whatever else we could ask for. Being that this was a winery, we also could grab a bottle or four at our leisure. And we did. 5 mins after arriving.

Deciding what to do in Tuscany is actually a bit difficult. Every town has their own attractions so you have to pick and choose what is worth your time and long windy drives. We typically like to stay away from touristy places when we travel with the kids so I had done a few hours of homework to plan this whole week out, and it was worth it.

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Our first drive took us to Montacino. This is where we also got our parental reminder that Lily gets car sick. We forgot about that. Driving sort of turned into a game of, let’s keep her looking out the window and give her plenty of fresh air for the rest of the week. We did our best but it was tough. Ask Jason on his opinion on driving in Tuscany.

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I wish I could post 500 pictures of all the little things that make Tuscany beautiful but you surely would get bored after the 40th picture of a door with a flowerbox window next to it. Just trust me when I say, it is beautiful and authentic.

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We stopped at Bagno Vignoni a small town that has natural hot springs running through it. We ended up just playing on the playground and just feeling the hot water because in order to swim in them you had to check into a spa/hotel thing that cost too much money. Plus a giant bus of tourists arrived which was our signal to leave.

I was disappointed because I really did want to swim/soak in one of Italy’s famous hot springs (termes) but after reading the reviews that sometimes you can get small leach like worms that crawl into your bathing suit…I’m glad I passed.

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Hey look a door that’s pretty.

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Anyway. Funny how things change. A few years ago I would be jumping up and down at the chance to take my 4 year old children into Florence. However, now that reality is more palpable, I was dreading doing it. BUT, I knew I had to do it. They were surprisingly well behaved and thanks to mom’s endless time reading the internet, we had a map and plan of action on how to get through a large city with as few meltdowns as possible. Gelato, merry go rounds, and chasing pigeons were all top billed activities for the kids.

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The Duomo, which is more beautiful on the outside than the inside. (sorry)

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Why doesn’t she get sick on these things?

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Florence side street shop

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Aaaaaand my pet-peeve. Kitsch. So sad that one of the coolest and most beautiful bridges is overrun by this stuff. One guy tried to stuff one of those squashy balls into Zane’s hand (only 2 euro!) and I yanked him away. Right into some guy who wanted to paint my picture for only 2 euro!

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I contacted a guide and told them I wanted my children to experience pottery making. She was amazing and designed an entire personal experience class just for the kids. Jason and I were both shocked at how well everything was prepared, thought out and executed. (Arianna and Friends is the name of the company who set it up).

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Zane and Lily made a new friend with their instructor who had nothing but love in her heart for both the children and the art of ceramics. They made several pieces and they will fire, glaze and are even shipping them back here to Brussels for us.

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We also contacted a horse stable to see about riding lessons for the both of them. We went into this not knowing what to expect either, and once again were blown away by the Italian hospitality and friendliness. The two women running these stables had things set up for us as soon as we arrived, got both those kids up on horses and riding around in no time. At the end they were both in control of their horses, steering (or whatever you do to a horse) them right and left through obstacles in the arena. After an hour, the ladies seemed shocked that we asked “how much do we owe you”, shrugged and said, um, ok, 20? And we did a double blink.

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I thought about taking the kids to the galleries in Florence. And then snapped back to reality. So I was so excited when I found Parco Sculture (I’m not misspelling it!) in Chianti. This is an outdoor park, where there are 30 commissioned pieces of art throughout the walking path of the park. The kids loved it and also loved finding the clues on their map as to which piece was next.

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We also visited a very empty Montapulciano, but don’t worry, the kids found some cats, a playground and hedge maze and were content. Mom and dad found a nice wine shop, all rejoiced.

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Oh good lord, there’s more. Ok…I keep on chugging with this blog post.
HERE is Brolio Castle. It’s a beautiful castle on a beautiful piece of land.

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Under the chapel.

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Nice staircase.

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It overlooks a huge valley and also produces Chianti Classico.

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SPEAKING OF WINE. Jason and I had a date day and got a babysitter. I set up a wine tour and tasting at Volpaia. Highly recommend! Our guide was the most interesting woman I think I’ve met in a long time. She has lived all over the world (not just traveled, lived) and seen some pretty amazing things (including getting out Somalia in November of 1993).
She took us to the production center (HUGE vats)

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And the olive oil production place (this is a marble stone that has been used for years to crush the olives)

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Wine aficionados probably already know this but I loved seeing the roof room where they hang the grapes to dry in order to concentrate their sugars and make things like Grappa.

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Large French Oak Barrels.

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And she set up our private tasting that could have easily gone on for hours had we not had some place to be.

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We were sad to part ways from our hostess at Volpaia, but excitedly hoped on the road to Arnolfo’s in Colle di Val d’Elsa.
The sleepy town of Colle di Val d’Elsa is a bit strange when you first arrive. You double check to make sure you are in the right place. Then you park the car, get out and walk through a tunnel, then you go up an elevator, then you walk through thin streets and voila, you find the restaurant.

It is the only 2 star Michelin restaurant in Tuscany, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Our lunch was simply amazing and the servers fantastic. The restaurant was essentially empty (the joys of traveling on the off season) and Gaetano and Giovanni Trovato were so nice and lovable. The chef Gaetano even made extra dishes for us for fun and when we left Giovanni gave me giant kisses on the cheek and handed me a large box of chocolates.

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We ate well while in Tuscany. I know this because of fond memories and the fact that I could not button my jeans this morning without laying on the bed and holding my breath. MMmmmm carbs….

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I think the kids had a great time. Although if you ask them they say, sure it was ok…when are we going to the park across the street?

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It was good down time. And good family time.

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These guys are getting big so quickly, I only hope they remember bits and pieces of these adventures.

And of course, a video compilation

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Week Sixty-Five

Jason and I got to set off for two and a half days FULL of Rome sightseeing thanks to Nana who has come to stay with us. While she watched Z&L, we hopped on a plane south in search for warmer weather. The day we left a new blanket of snow had fallen all over Brussels and we were not sad to leave it behind. Rome was “warmer” but it still was a bit chilly for this time of year (like much of the world right now).
We woke up late each morning, enjoyed breakfast and set off with walking shoes, a camera and a backpack. We came home exhausted but educated.

IMG_5756After arriving we decided to go take a look around the ruins in the city center.  Here’s the iconic Colosseum.  We did not go in because the line was rumored to be around 2 hrs even with the Roma Pass.  Jason and I have a rule about traveling passed on by our buddy Mr. Steeves…we don’t wait in lines.

IMG_6228The Roman Forum

IMG_5784A building near the entrance to Palatine Hill.  Fun story…we saw the line to get in to Palatine Hill (~200+ deep?) and said. um. no.  So we walked around the backside looking at other things.  When we found a different entrance to Palatine Hill with no line.  Success.

IMG_5774We were looking at this Church when we found the entrance.

IMG_5871The Pantheon (not the Parthenon.  I couldn’t quit calling it that!) IMG_5876Each Pillar is constructed with one solid piece of granite and the dome is made of unreinforced concrete.  How it structurally existed was a mystery until only recently when it was discovered that the roof goes from extremely thick concrete at the bottom and slowly gets thinner on the way up allowing it to go unsupported.

After visiting a fair amount of old Rome…except Circus Maximus because Jason did not want to walk the distance to see an oval gravel pit…we viewed more (or less) modern Rome.

IMG_6160 IMG_6216 IMG_5818 IMG_5848 IMG_6242Trevi Fountain is impressive day or night.IMG_5955 People watching was also a highlight.
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Recently Updated2But.  The people. The people.  The people.  There were a few times when I started feeling my heart race up into my chest and my mind start to fuzz.  Fight or Flight mode started coursing through my veins and I either wanted to punch the next person who stepped on my foot/elbowed my camera or RUN to get out of there.  While in the Sistene Chapel a poor woman had a panic attack and freaked out.  They were able to get to her and take her out.  Before experiencing the madness that is the Vatican THE DAY BEFORE EASTER, I would have raised an eyebrow at someone having a panic attack while staring up at Michangelo’s masterpiece.  Now? I’m surprised I didn’t have one myself.

IMG_6044In keeping with our no lines policy, Jason and I hired a private tour guide of The Vatican from Absolute Italy.  It is pricey but WORTH IT.  We skipped all the lines and walked straight in.  Also, we got the Indiana Jones of guides.  Daniele is an archeologist who studies the Etruscans.  In fact, he was leaving in two weeks to head to a dig site in Tuscany.  He led the two of us through the Vatican with ease and immense knowledge.

IMG_6138Always my favorite Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, in particular The School of Athens. To see it in person was quite amazing.

IMG_6105The ceiling of the “map room” sort of takes your breath away when you first round the corner.

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IMG_6089Three of the nine Muses.

IMG_6086The “Laocoon and His Sons” sculpture

IMG_6149Pictures are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.

DSC02574We did not get to go inside Saint Peter’s Basilica because it was closed in preparation for Saturday night and Sunday morning Easter mass.   But we did get to see the square.

DSC02575Indiana Daniele Jones was fantastic.  Side note…LOOK how we are.  I have put on my ugly walking shoes, my trench coat is a hideous mess and I look like I’m about to die.   Jason’s hair looks like he just got up.   I mean…4 hours of being molested by pushing and shoving your way through the Vatican was enough to make anyone look this bad.

Recently Updated3But without Daniele’s help, all of these things would have just been “stuff I saw” in The Vatican instead of things, I learned about.

We spent the rest of our time in Rome enjoying good food and drinks:
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Observing political and social struggles:
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Being nerdy with Dan Brown hunts (From Angels and Demons):
DSC02589The Four Rivers fountain that the Cardinal is pulled out of…

IMG_6173The Demon’s Hole

IMG_6169Inside the Santa Maria del Popolo

Commentary:
I’ve noticed a recent trend in major cities that I am “DONE” with!Mar 29, 2013

kitschy – Sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts.  Each major European city we have visited has been overrun by kitsch.  People badgering you to buy stupid little McDonald’s toys, laser pointers, fake knock-off brand items, Beglian waffles (in Italy), men dressed in stupid costumes asking for money if you so much as glance at them, it is ridiculous!

My time on the Spanish steps was ruined by these guys.  I was trying to enjoy the moment but every 15 seconds someone came up to me yelling PREGO! PREGO! and tried to hand me a rose, or a laser pointer, or a squash ball or a bracelet all for sale, only One Euro.  And not just asking, IN YOUR FACE and trying to shove it in your hand.  Jason had to go into protector mode when this man would not take “NO” for an answer.  After the 4th NO from me, he tried to put the rose into my elbow grove and almost got it down my shirt.  I screamed STOP and Jason had to get in his face to get him to back off.
The cities are going to have to do something about this because it is driving tourists away.  The movie-like charm and romance of these cities are gone thanks to these “vendors”.  We will be visiting Florence next week and I heard they are even worse than Rome.  I’m bringing mace.

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A now, a 3 minute video review of Rome.  This is me being cheesy and a travel channel tour guide impersonator so enjoy my corny side.

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Week Sixty-Three

One of my many New Year’s Resolutions was to get out and explore more of Brussels proper, to learn the history and get dirty with the sights. This past week I decided to head to The Coudenberg Museum located in Central Brussels.

I had heard about it from a friend of a friend who knew someone who had been there. Such is typical around these parts. This museum is an archeological site under the Royal Palace of Brussels. You see, back in the day, Brussels was a pretty formidable city. The entire city was fortified by a giant wall and a tremendous royal castle sat upon the highest hill. In the 18th century, that castle burned and fell to ruins. And in 1770, instead of just tearing it down the engineers of the time just threw earth over the ruins, paved over it, raised the elevation, and built a new palace. Recently (as in within the past 30 years), a team of archeologist unearthed the ruins of the area underneath and created this underground museum.

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I started my journey by parking my car and taking a look at one of my favorite Brussels views. Then I laughed at how it pretty much spells out “Brussels”. The only thing missing was dog poop.

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I gave a few coins to this man, a typical friendly Brussels street musician…

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…and walked down this typical Brussels city street.  You know, safety first and all.

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The entrance to the Museum is inside of the BelVue Museum in the back corner there. Because having its own entrance would be crazy, make sense and people would know where they were going.
You can see in this picture, what is the back of the current Royal Palace. This is the area where the earth was built up.

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It used to be on a big hill as seen here. But after the fire, they leveled out the ground and built over the ruins.

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The Belvue Museum does have a nice cafeteria and I highly recommend going there with small kids. It is reasonably priced option to have pretty good food in the Sablon area in a laid back atmosphere.

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The entrance to the Coudenberg is pretty cool. You type in the code that the ticket man gives you into a keycode panel in the basement. Then a large steel door opens with a WOOSH CLANG! and you are thrown into the 14th century.

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I happened to be the ONLY ONE in the entire underground museum that day and it gave me a really erie feeling. You could hear the people, cars and buses up above you, yet they had no idea you were directly under them walking along 14th century walls and streets.

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Stone cutting tool marks

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Excavation site showing many walls. While in this part of the site, every time the tram would go by overhead, everything under ground with me would shake and rumble. Cool, but also unnerving.

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Old stone doorway

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This is the old “Rue Isabella”. This road travelled between the castle, church and other buildings. The wall is the outer wall of the church and you can see up at the top where the road started to descend down the hill (I’m standing “in the street” to take this picture). The cement above me here, with the lights hanging on it, is the loud, current day street with cars zooming by.

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14th century cobblestones mixed with 16th century stones

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Staircase ascending from the street.

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In the archeological dig they found many artifacts including lots of venetian glass.

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The bluish hue is thanks to potassium in the glass components.

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I’ve got a thing for old keys.

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At the end of the museum, you exit out a sliding glass door that does not open from the outside.  You are then dumped out into an alley way that is no where near your original entrance. I had to laugh because it was just like, “Thank you for coming! Find your own way back! Hope you know where you are!”

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I did find my way out and on the way back to my car I stopped by the Notre-Dame du Sablon. It was a great time of day to take a walk around the inside because the sun was hitting the stained glassed windows perfectly.

In addition to this solo field trip, I also went on a guided tour of The Marolles area of Brussels with some other moms from the children’s school. It was educational but I will save that history lesson for another blog entry.

The weather was warmer than freezing on Saturday so we headed back to the zoo to get some fresh air.

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A few things struck me as funny.  The chances of finding a burning fire to help visitors warm up in the middle of a public place are about 0% in the US.  I don’t know where the baby in the stroller was but, can you imagine in the US how much people would be freaking out.  THERE IS A FIRE!  AROUND CHILDREN!!!!!!!

IMG_2001I was also reminded why I will NEVER be able to learn Dutch.

Video Recap of the week:

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If you are really psyched about history, here is more on Coudenberg.  Hey, you never know when you will end up on Jeopardy.

Taken from the Coudenberg Museum website

HISTORY

The palace of Dukes of Brabant

van-heil-infante-isabelle-musee-ville-bruxelles-maison-du-roi.jpgPerched on the Coudenberg and dominating the town, the Palace of Brussels was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most beautiful princely residences in the whole of Europe. It traces its roots back to the 12th century. In the 13th century, the Dukes of Brabant decided to give the city a central political role. In the following century, this defensive castle soon became a mecca for diplomats and a prime site for entertaining.

When the Duchy of Brabant fell into the hands of the Dukes of Burgundy and more specifically Philip the Good, the city of Brussels endeavoured to attract these rich princes – the most profligate spenders of the age – to stay within its walls. To this end, the city constructed a prestigious state banqueting hall – the Aula Magna – between 1452 and 1460.

The successor of the Dukes of Burgundy – Charles V, the most powerful Western emperor – personally oversaw the development of the palace during the first half of the 16th century. An imposing chapel in the Gothic style was built during his reign.

The palace’s other wings did not lag behind: the main building was also enlarged and elevated, new windows were added, and a vast gallery decorated with statues was erected. This ample complex was transformed over the centuries in the Brabantian, Burgundian, Spanish and Austrian style as each sovereign was intent on making his own mark. Highly refined works of art graced the apartments including the most delicate tapestries and embroideries, sumptuous silver and gold objects, luxurious illuminated and printed books, sculpted statues and busts and the finest glass and china work, without forgetting countless paintings by renowned artists such as Titian, Rubens and Brueghel.

The fire of 1731

gva-incendie-1679-c-musee-ville-bruxelles-maison-du-roi.jpgOn the 3rd of February 1731, after a tiring day, the Governess of the Netherlands, Marie-Elisabeth of Austria, retires to her apartments in the palace of Brussels. Overcome with fatigue, the sister of the Emperor Charles VI fails to extinguish the candles. The fire quickly passes through wooden panelling into adjacent rooms.

Throughout the night, the palace guards struggle to extinguish the blaze with the only means at their disposal at the time: leather buckets and water spray pumps. The town militia who gather quickly to help are pushed back in the confusion. The strict respect of protocol, formally forbidding access to the governor’s private apartments, prevents the fire fighters from attacking the source of the blaze. The governess is saved by the intervention of a grenadier who dares to break down the doors of her apartments. In addition, the wind is strong and icy conditions hamper water supplies.

From reading the investigation report, it appears that the witnesses didn’t dare to directly accuse the signora Capellini, the Governess’ maid and one of her favourite companions, but that they nevertheless thought her guilty. The findings of the investigation aimed to protect the Governess by establishing that the fire had originated in a kitchen located underneath her apartments, where a banquet was being prepared.

The Royal Quarter of the 18th century

lorent-place-royale-musee-ville-bruxelles-maison-du-roi.JPGAfter the drama of 1731 that left half of the palace destroyed, the Court moved to the neighbouring Nassau House, which served as the future palace to Charles of Lorraine. The ruins of the palace were left almost completely abandoned for forty years and were nicknamed the “Burnt Court”.

In the 1770s, political will and financial conditions met around a large-scale architectural project to redevelop the entire court district. The ruins of the old palace as well as numerous surrounding buildings were raised to the ground in order to make way for the creation of a new square: Place Royale. The square was to be bordered with neo-classical buildings, that can still seen today.

As for the park and the numerous gardens of the palace, they have been replaced by a neo-classical park and the Coudenberg’s former slopes have disappeared from the urban landscape.

Certain elements of the old buildings were nevertheless preserved to function as cellars and foundations for the new constructions. It is these remains that we can visit today at the Coudenberg archaeological site.

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