What, No Light Salad Dressing?

When my husband and I moved to Brussels in 1997 many things changed in our lives. There were the obvious things like switching countries, homes, job, leaving career (for me), having babies overseas, making new friends and so forth and so on.

 

The Early Days in Brussels

The Early Days in Brussels – 1998

One of the most impactful changes for us was how we viewed food and the preparation of food. Before moving to Europe, my husband and I prided ourselves in being foodies and good cooks. We enjoyed cooking and had even gone to a weeklong cooking program in Tuscany in 1996. It was in the Florence food markets that we got an appreciation for the “farm to table” concept and for learning what it was to eat foods that were in season. However, back in the states because of our busy work schedules we relied more on processed foods. During the weekdays there were many Marie Callender potpies, Prego spaghetti sauce, and Hamburger Helper. It was only on the weekends that my husband and I had the time to prepare food from scratch. We loved cooking for family and friends.

The farm to table concept in the US in the mid-nineties was more regional and not as commonly accepted as it is today. Little did we know that living in Europe would explode our palates and enlighten our attitudes about food and its preparation.

We did not set out to be food enlightened. It just happened. We found some very different cultural practices in Brussels. For starters, all stores were closed on Sunday, even food stores. Belgians spent Sundays at home with their families and not at a mall.  During the weekdays food stores closed at 6 p.m. At first we felt this was such an inconvenience but we quickly adjusted. We found ourselves cooking even more and spending time at home on the weekends. Belgium is a foodie country where people enjoy their food, wine, and beer. We had access to an amazing array of farmer’s markets. Any bread you bought was delicious freshly baked bread. There was no such thing as processed Wonder Bread or light bread. In time my husband and I gave up drinking diet sodas which had been a staple in our US diets. As any expat will tell you, you need to adjust to the local offerings. We found ourselves trying new foods. We also did a lot of traveling throughout Europe exposing us to an even greater variety of food. In 2001 both my husband and I attended The Cordon Bleu Cooking school in London. He did a cooking program and I did a pâtisserie course thus furthering our passion for cooking.

 

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

I was a successful graduate of Weight Watchers 35 years ago and have maintained my weight to this date. Before moving to Belgium, I had relied heavily on low-calorie and low-fat processed foods. I was especially dependent on light dressings. When I showed up at the Belgian supermarket I looked for the dressing section only to discover they had ONE kind. It was mustard vinaigrette and it was not even a low-fat version. Oh my, what is a girl to do!! For the first year of living in Belgium, anyone who visited us from the United States was instructed to bring light dressings and Pop-Tarts. OK, I must confess, I still like Pop-Tarts. I did try the local Belgian dressing but it was boring and I was still hung up on the calorie count. Then one day I decided to make my own vinaigrette from scratch. Sure, it was a full calorie dressing, but it was devoid of all the artificial stuff you find in a processed bottle of salad dressing and tasted much better. Gone from my salad dressing were all those unknown food additives. By 1999 I started making my own salad dressings and have never looked back. And guess what? I did not gain weight! My husband and I found ourselves making other things from scratch, like the cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner because you could not find Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. We started reading labels carefully, mainly because they were in Flemish and we needed to translate them to make sure we knew what we were buying. In general, we became more mindful of our food quality and its preparation.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

In Brussels, I had become a full-time parent, which allowed me to cook more during the weekdays. However, the reality was that with 2 small babies 18 months apart, 2 labs, and a husband who traveled frequently, I felt somewhat overwhelmed and was not as creative with cooking as I had hoped to be. Furthermore our children were picky eaters and I found myself cooking two meals every night, one for the children and one for the adults. Expeditious cooking was the name of the game. In some ways I fell into the trap of feeding my children what they preferred because it was easier: Kraft macaroni-n-cheese, white sauce pasta, and frozen chicken nuggets. I continued experimenting with food and over time my children’s palates evolved. It took until 2007, when the children were 10 and 9, for me to finally be able to prepare one meal for the whole family. In general as a family we started  preparing more food from scratch.

What started out as the need to make certain foods from scratch because they were not available turned into making food from scratch because it was the healthiest and most delicious way to prepare it. I still have a little voice in my head that keeps me on track with my weight. My husband and I prepare food without cutting corners. We may occasionally cut back a little on the butter and cream but we try to stay true to the recipes. We do balance our meals and eat in moderation (well except for Thanksgiving). I love my chocolate cakes as you will read in the link below. We know that we have to exercise to stay in shape. In many ways, exercising is our motivation to continue cooking and enjoying delicious food.

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My homemade dressing

When you make homemade dressing the key is to reach emulsification. Emulsification is when the oil and the vinegar blend into one liquid. There are two ways to achieve emulsification. One is to use the correct ratios between oil and vinegar. Typically, the ratio is 1 part vinegar or other acid such as lemon to 3 parts oil. A second way to enhance emulsification is to use an emulsifying agent such as mustard. There a hundreds of recipes on-line but below I give you my guidelines for my mustard vinaigrette. Buy yourself a salad dressing container that will allow you to blend the ingredients well and store the remaining dressing in the refrigerator.

Classic mustard vinaigrette:

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • cup red wine vinegar
  • About a tsp. of Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground Black Pepper: several turns on the grinder
  • 1 Tbs. of dried Herbes de Provence
  • 1 Tbs. of honey (the honey softens the flavor of the vinegar)
  • 1 Tbs. of Dijon Mustard

Variations on this recipe: You can use olive oil or grape seed oil. When I use olive oil I like to use balsamic vinegar. You can also add freshly cut herbs or shallots. Have fun with it and try different ingredients.

Why I like to Run: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/why-i-like-to-run/

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Brussels – Our Other Home

Brussels Arc de Triomphe in Cinquantenaire Park

Brussels Arc de Triomphe in Cinquantenaire Park

By now you have heard the terrible news of the bombs that went off in Brussels. Brussels is our other home. We lived in Brussels close to 5 years, from 1997 until  2001. It was an amazing experience and was made even more special because both our children were born there. We left a little bit of hearts there. Today my thoughts are with the people of Belgium.

The Town Hall Building in the Grand Place/ Grote Markt

The Town Hall Building in the Grand Place/ Grote Markt – Brussels

Our early years in Brussels 1997 – 2001…

Walking the streets of Brussels with our son.

Walking the streets of Liège, Belgium with our son.

 

Walking the children and the dogs in our neighborhood.

Walking the children and the dogs in our neighborhood.

 

In the Hallerbos, The Bluebell Forest of Belgium located in Halle

In the Hallerbos, The Bluebell Forest of Belgium located in Halle

Our return trip back in 2005…

Visiting the hospital the children were born in: Clinique General St. Jean or in Femish

Visiting the hospital the children were born in: Clinique General St. Jean or in Flemish Algemene Kliniek Sint Jan located in downtown Brussels

 

The Mannekin Pis, a famous statue of a little boy peeing into the fountain's basin.

The Manneken Pis, a famous statue of a little naked boy peeing into the fountain’s basin located in Brussels.

Tasting and learning about the most delicious chocolate in the world, Belgium Chocolate. Here we are in front of Pierre Marcollini with our loot.

Tasting and learning about the most delicious chocolate in the world, Belgian Chocolate. Here we are in front of Pierre Marcolini Luxury Chocolates with our loot.

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Enjoying and climbing the sights of Antwerp, Belgium At The Het Steen Castle

Photos from our return trip in 2013…

The magical medieval city of Bruges

The magical medieval city of Bruges, Belgium

 

Eating the most awesome waffles in the world!

Eating the most awesome waffles in the world!

 

With my children in the Grand Place/Grote Markt

With my children in the Grand Place/Grote Markt 2013

 

 

 

Series on Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

Part II

The Importance of Exposure to Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the second of my three-part series on multiculturalism, diversity, and cross-cultural relationships. In my first article: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/series-on-multiculturalism-cross-cultural-relationships-and-diversity/, I shared with my readers how and when I became impassioned with this topic. In this follow-up posting, I elaborate on the importance of exposure to multiculturalism and diversity. My definition of diversity includes people with all types of differences: race, religion, philosophy, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic, intelligence, genetic attributes, etc.

Exposure to multiculturalism and diversity helps us expand our awareness and knowledge. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can lead to cooperation and collaboration. And how much easier would it be to live on this planet, to work together to solve its problems, if we operated under this premise. But I know this sounds very utopian, and perhaps rather than try to solve the world’s problems, I can focus on my little part of the universe and help influence those around me in a positive way. I behave a certain way, because I know that my children are watching and emulating my every move. I want them to grow up without unfounded prejudices and fears.

Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

2012 – Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

It is human nature to gravitate to known and comfortable environments. And it is also human nature to be weary of those and of things that are unknown. In the absence of true knowledge we allow fear and ignorance to form our misguided judgments.

I grew up as a Colombian immigrant in Queens, New York in the 60’s. At the time the Latinos in New York City were made up of mostly Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Even among the existing Latino groups there was dislike and mistrust. My parents and I moved to an apartment building in Woodside, Queens. We were the only Hispanic family in our building. For several months after we moved in, my parents greeted our next-door neighbors, a white Jewish elderly couple, and for months they ignored my parent’s polite salutations. My parents were patient and knew from prior experience that in time the couple would come around, and they did. Somehow their comfort level grew as they got to know us and they became friendly with us. It makes me happy to think that we helped influence their viewpoint in a positive way. My other memory of a neighbor was of the Marshall family, one of the few African-American families in our building. Mrs. Marshall was working a full-time job, was raising a family, had lost a son in the Vietnam War, and on top of all of that, she was the dedicated Girl Scout leader of my troop. I always admired her commitment to the community and am grateful that she served as a role model to me inspiring me to become a Girl Scout leader to my own daughter.

Marching proudly in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT with my Girl Scout Troop.

2005 – Marching proudly with my Girl Scout Brownie troop in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT.

Growing up as a Latina in New York was not a great thing. Not because I was directly mistreated but because there was a prevailing attitude that Hispanics and Hispanic culture was sub par. As a child I looked for ways of blending in and forgetting my ethnicity. I suppose this is what thousands of immigrant children had done before me and continue to do to this day. Immigrant groups that arrived before us staked a claim and defined what they believe is the “right way” of being American, and all of the newly arrived immigrants try desperately to fit in by giving up their uniqueness. It is sadly contradictory that some of the people of this country, a nation founded on freedoms and religious tolerance, punish those for being different. I was incensed recently with the reaction by the general public when Ms. New York, the first Indian-American woman to win the title of Ms. America 2014 received vile feedback in the news and social media. Ugly comments were made accusing her of not being “American” enough, and of not representing “American” values. Wow, that today in 2014 we can still have such biased views and prejudices saddens me.

In 1974, my parents decided to return to Colombia because that was their plan all along. Little did they know that our going back to Colombia would be the greatest gift they would ever give me. I had come to the United States at age two and now at 13 we were returning to my birth country. The USA was my home but I was equally accepting of the idea of moving back to Colombia where I had spent most of my childhood summers. I would become immersed in the culture, learn the history, travel the country, study the language, and develop an appreciation for being Colombian. This experience also heightened my sensitivity to the appreciation of other cultures.

My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event.

2003 – Westport, CT My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event. The shoes are Colombian “alpargatas”, a type of espadrille shoe.

As much as we enjoyed living in Colombia I had my sights on going to university in the states and so we returned in 1978. Living in Colombia had raised my self-confidence and solidified my identity. Upon my return to the USA I no longer felt like a minority. That is until my senior year of college when I went from not feeling like a minority to being labeled a “double minority”. That was a huge surprise and I envisioned a giant rubber stamp coming down on my forehead.  I was a soon-to-graduate engineer who was a “woman” and a “Latina”. I became highly coveted by the recruiting companies because I could fill two of their minority recruiting quotas. The reality was that I was back in the United States where labeling seemed and continues to be, unfortunately, a very important part of this culture.

In my first article, I mentioned how I have three distinct roles. I am a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and a US citizen. In the first role, I did not and do not need to prove anything to anyone. However, in my role as a Colombian immigrant and naturalized US citizen I have always felt it necessary to show other Americans a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos, while dispelling some of the misconceptions they have of our ethnic group. I will take this opportunity to say that there is a subset of American society that is open-minded and have an appreciation for diversity. I also have to point out that prejudices can also exist within a minority group.

Celebrating a birthday in Annapolis, MD with two American friends.

2013 – Celebrating another birthday in Annapolis, MD with two wonderful American friends.

My husband, a white American of European decent, and I have raised our children in a multicultural environment. Together we made the decision that I would speak Spanish and he would speak English to the children. As a family we have lived in Belgium, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and England. Every location has offered us varying experiences. Moving has taught us resilience and adaptability. Living abroad has taught us to see things from a different point of view. We have lived in small towns and in big cities. We have lived in very diverse and in very homogenous locations.

2002 - My son on the left in yet another costume I made, representing lightning. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practiceof allowing their hair to grow as a  symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation.

2002 – My son on the left dressed as “lightning”. I certainly kept busy making costumes. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practice of allowing their hair to grow as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. She was worried about her son being teased as he got older.

I have come to the conclusion that people from very homogenous towns or groups are at risk of becoming insular and close-minded. These folks have had limited exposure to people who are different perhaps by their own choosing or just by chance. When suddenly faced with a person or group who may not conform to their value system, they allow fear and ignorance to form their misguided judgments. Some can exhibit behaviors such as apathy, unfriendliness, anger, discrimination, segregation, bullying, mistreatment, or even violence. These behaviors are then passed on to their children and the negative behaviors and misconceptions are perpetuated. However, not all people from a homogenous group will react negatively. Some will allow themselves the opportunity to get to know the “stranger” much like the elderly couple did towards us, and eventually welcome them into the community. It is nice to know that human decency and goodness can prevail.

In 2011 we had the opportunity to move to London with our teen-aged children. We spent two years living in one of the most diverse cities of the world. I am so grateful that we were able to expose our family to so many ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. When you live among people of different backgrounds or attributes you develop a comfort level with them that allows you to be open-minded. This better prepares you to interact with each other and offers a basis for cooperation and collaboration. It prepares you to live in the global community and to work in a diverse environment. I also feel that living in London gave my children an appreciation for their own multi-cultural background.

2011 - London Exploring our new home.

2011 – London Exploring our new home.

We are now in suburban USA. There is still so much to improve and accomplish in the arena of diversity. In the fall, I was at an orientation at my children’s school and I could not help but notice that there were three distinct groups of people. There was a large group of mostly white families with a smattering of some ethnic families mingling with them, there was a small group of African-American families, and then there were the assorted loners. I wondered to myself why each group was keeping to themselves fully knowing the answer to my own question. Everyone was choosing to stay in his or her own comfort zone. This self-selected segregation bothered me so I chose to walk over to the group of African American parents to introduce myself. Some of you may argue that self-selected segregation is acceptable, but I will counter that with, self-selected segregation is a defense mechanism, that although shields us temporarily, it prevents us from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential.

The United States is not the only country dealing with diversity issues. The challenges exist worldwide. Italy appointed its first black female cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge in April of this year. What was seen as a positive step in racial integration has publicly highlighted the ugly face of the prejudices that exist in Italy as Mrs. Kyenge endures countless racial abuse. Many other countries have experience similar challenges with assimilation of ethnic groups such as France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Colombia and many other Latin American countries are guilty of marginalizing their own native and black minority groups. Other nations struggle with uniting internal religious and ethnic groups. No location is immune to this problem.

I have been through my own journey. I too am guilty of passing incorrect judgment. I have come to the realization that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes can be almost imperceptible. We all have a value system that we learned at home. There are moments in our lives that we come to crossroads where our existing value system is challenged. If we recognize these junctures as learning opportunities then we can begin to make changes that allow us to become better human beings.

In the end, the hallmark of a good relationship is when all parties involved are made to feel good in that relationship. And how do we do this?  By taking the steps necessary to learn about the other person. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can ultimately lead to cooperation and collaboration.

Slide1I do a reality check and bring myself back to my little corner of the universe, back to my original goal, to behave in a way that teaches my children to be open-minded and not develop unfounded prejudices and fears.

In my last and third article I share my call to action with you, steps you can take to further your exposure to multiculturalism and diversity.

For now I leave you with the following:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

The Special People Who Cross Our Paths

The People Who Cross Our Paths

The Special People Who Cross Our Paths

People cross our path every moment of our lives. Time and again, I have proven to myself that these encounters are not random but that these people enter our lives for special and unique reasons. I was recently asked to contribute a story for my friend’s 60th birthday celebration. I like to say that the universe sent me this special person at a moment in my life when I needed her the most.

In 1997, my husband and I were getting ready to move to Brussels, Belgium with his job. Not only were we excited about the expat opportunity, we were finally expecting our first child. During the week that the movers were packing our household goods, we received what seemed at the time the tragic news that our baby would need corrective plastic surgeries after his birth. We would arrive in a foreign land with no friends and family to deal with this challenge. Fortunately, my husband and I had each other and together we would begin to educate ourselves on the future medical needs of our baby. Our son was born in Brussels on his official due date of Christmas Eve, December 24, 1997. After researching doctors in the United States and in Belgium we chose to stay in Brussels for our son’s surgeries. His first surgery was scheduled for March of 1998 at the tender age of 2 months. I was very fortunate to have my mother come stay with us for the three months between my son’s birth and his first surgery. She was a huge support during that difficult time. The time between my son’s birth and his surgery remains a blur. I spent most of the time anticipating the surgical procedure while prioritizing his medical requirements. My husband, my mother, and I tried to maintain the semblance of a normal life. Together with my son, my mother and I would get out of the house and visit public places. We would often feel the glaring eyes of strangers staring at my son, pointing their fingers, and making comments in Flemish or French alluding to his condition. We tried to be courageous and ignore these people while moving on as naturally as we could. In hindsight, it was a very emotional time for us all.

One day my mother and I were at the tea room of the American Women’s Club of Brussels. We were having lunch and my son was quietly laying in his car seat on the floor between us. This was still before his surgery. All of a sudden this cheerful outgoing American lady showed up out of nowhere and said something like “Oh my word, he is so beautiful!” as she scooped my son into her arms without hesitation. Those words resonated in my head. Someone had called my baby beautiful. I had been so overwhelmed with my son’s medical needs, his day-to-day care, as well as blaming myself for what had happened, that I had not acknowledged to myself that he was indeed, BEAUTIFUL! It would take this complete stranger, an angel crossing my path, to reach my soul with such a powerful statement. And so this person would enter our lives. She was the friend that both my mother and I desperately needed at that time. She embraced us with her laughter, support, and friendship. Little did she know that the universe had sent her to us that afternoon, because we were all in need of some tender loving care and she was just the right person for the job! She has remained a dear friend. Our children call her Tia which means aunt in Spanish. So on this joyous 60th birthday celebration I wanted her to know how grateful I still am for that moment when she not only crossed my path, she joined it, sharing her love and friendship throughout these years and more importantly for being there at one of the most difficult times in my life. And proving once again that people enter our lives for very special reasons.

I hope that you too have someone special cross your path. I also hope that someday you serve as someone’s special person on their path.

Awaiting those special people who cross our path. Awaiting to cross someone's path.

Awaiting those special people who cross our path.
Awaiting to cross someone’s path.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Brussels and Bruges

Sitting with my daughter in the Grand Place of Brussels May 2013 Photo By Curt Petrucelli

Sitting with my daughter in the Grand Place of Brussels
May 2013
Photo By Curt Petrucelli

As you may remember, our family lived in Brussels, Belgium for four years from 1997 until 2001. Both our children were born in Brussels. After we returned to the US, I had brought the children to visit Brussels in 2005 but we had not been back since then. We thought it very appropriate to visit Brussels on our last weekend getaway before moving back to the states.

With my children in our visit back to Brussels in 2005

With my children in our visit back to Brussels in 2005
The Grand Place

Visiting Brussels 2013 Photo By Curt Petrucelli

Visiting Brussels May 2013
At the Grand Place
Photo By Curt Petrucelli

Many friends here have asked me if a weekend is enough time to visit Brussels and my answer is always a resounding yes. Not only did we visit Brussels we took a day trip to beautiful Bruges. Belgium is a country about the size of the state of Maryland. It is located north of France and south of the Netherlands, with Germany and Luxembourg to its east. The country is culturally divided in two halves, the northern half that speaks Flemish (similar to Dutch) and the southern half that speaks French. The two groups do not really like each other and often times choose English as the language of choice to address each other in. Brussels is officially a bilingual city so its streets signs are always in both French and Flemish. Belgium is a country rich in history and with wonderful cuisine, not to mention about 400 varieties of beer, yummy waffles, and the best chocolate in the world.

Neuhaus Chocolates

Neuhaus Chocolates

Although Brussels is a small city it is a very important player in the global stage. Both the European Union and NATO are headquartered in Brussels.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

We departed after school on a Friday afternoon on a 5:00 p.m. Eurostar train from St. Pancras International Station in London. The train arrived at Gare Midi in Brussels and from there we took a quick taxi ride to our hotel Le Meridién located across from Gare Central in the heart of the city.  We were checked into the hotel by 8:30 pm (the clock moves forward by 1 hour). We had made reservations for dinner at the Brasserie de la Roue D’Or located near the Grand Place. This classic Art Nouveau brasserie serves typical Belgian fare like waterzooi (chicken or fish soup), vol-au-vent (chicken in mushroom cream sauce served in pastry shells), moules (mussels), and frites (fries). The restaurant has murals that resemble the art of the famous Belgian surreal artist René Magritte. We enjoyed a delicious dinner.

One of my favorite Belgian Beer, Grimbergen Triple

One of my favorite Belgian Beer, Grimbergen Triple

The next morning we took a one-hour train ride from Brussels to the medieval city of Bruges. Bruges is located in the Flemish northern part of the country. It is a beautiful city that still preserves its medieval charm. The city has canals running through it and has been referred to as the “Venice of the North”.

The canals of Bruges

The canals of Bruges
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

We meandered through the streets of Bruges and took one of the canal boat rides. The boat ride allows you to enjoy the canals and charming buildings along the way. We had an amazing lunch at a restaurant called Kok au Vin where delicious Belgian food was served. The main city square is called the Markt Square. There you will find the Belfry of Bruges the medieval bell tower that still functions today.

The charming medieval houses in Bruges

The charming medieval houses in Bruges
The Belfry Tower in the Back
Photo By Curt Petrucelli

We returned to Brussels by late afternoon. We strolled over to the Grand Place. The Grand Place or Grote Markt is on the UNESCO list of heritage sites, and rightfully so because in my opinion it is one of the most beautiful city squares in Europe. The earliest mention of the Grand Place is 1174. It has always had seven streets feeding into it. Today it is a collection of private and public buildings, with the Hotel De Ville (City Hall) taking up most of its south side. Other buildings in the square include various guild houses, Cloth, Bread and Meat Halls. Many of the immediate streets off of the Grand Place are cobble-stoned. We decided to enjoy an afternoon snack at one of the cafes in the beautiful Galeries St. Hubert. One of my all time favorite snacks is Crepes Mikado, a crepe accompanied with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. My daughter enjoyed another family favorite, a Dame Blanche (White Lady), the French term for a Hot Fudge sundae.

Walking down Rue de Bouchers - Seafood Restaurant Row

Walking down Rue des Bouchers – Seafood Restaurant Row
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

From the Galeries St. Hubert we entered the section known as Ilot Sacré with its famous street called Rue des Bouchers. This street is full of seafood restaurants exhibiting their exotic seafood displays enticing customers to come in. Make sure you do your research before eating in one of these restaurants, since some of them are tourist traps. We had made reservations for dinner at an outstanding family run Italian restaurant Pasta Divina. The wife rolls out the pasta, the husband is the maître’d and the daughter is one of the waitresses. The pasta dishes were amazingly delicious.

The Cathedral of Saint Michel and Saint Gudule

The Cathedral of Saint Michel and Saint Gudule
Photo By Curt Petrucelli

We spent our Sunday visiting more Brussels tourist attractions. One of the city’s famous landmarks is that of a small fountain statue of a little boy urinating, The Mannekin Pis. The statue dates back to 1619. There are several legends explaining the significance of the statue, one is the story of the little boy who tried to put out a fire in the city by urinating on it. The bottom line is that it is very endearing and Brussels is quite proud of it. The statue even gets dressed in various costumes depending on the occasion.

The Mannequin Pis 2005

The Mannequin Pis 2005

A Typical Waffle shop near the Mannequin Pis 2013

A Typical Waffle shop near the Mannequin Pis 2013

The  Jazz Marathon Festival was playing in the Grand Place during our visit.  The Grand Place was set up with dozens of tables and chairs and surrounded by food and drink stalls. On our second day we chose to have lunch at one of the square’s famous Belgian restaurants Restaurant ‘T Kelderke. We enjoyed more delicious Belgian food. We ate stoemp, a typical dish of mashed potatoes and vegetables, accompanied by various meat dishes. My husband and son had stoemp with sausages and I ate stoemp with Carbonnades Flammandes a delicious Flemish beer stew.

One of the Bruges local beer  - Bruges Zot

One of the Bruges local beer – Bruges Zot

We strolled through the Parc de Bruxellles and made our way to the Royal Palace. We visited, The Cathedral of Saint Michel and Saint Gudule dedicated to the male and female patron saints of Brussels. We then meandered to the Place du Grand Sablon another very quaint square filled with cafes, boutiques and restaurants. On of the ends of the Sablon is the gothic church of Notre Dame Du Sablon built in the early 15th century. Not far from the Place du Grand Sablon is Pierre Marcolini, one of Belgium’s world-renowned chocolatiers.

The spoiled life of a yellow life looking over the Bruges Canals

The spoiled life of a yellow labrador looking over the Bruges Canals
Photo By Curt Petrucelli

Belgium is famous for its tapestries and lace making. I definitely recommend you buy some of these as souvenirs. One of my favorite shops is Goblins Art located off of the Grand ‘Place. On Sunday afternoon we enjoyed our last Belgian beer and snacks at the restaurant Le Roy off of the Grand Place before heading back to Gare Midi. We would once again bid the city we once called home, “au revoir and tot ziens”.

Moving Overseas

Yesterday, I walked my dog Maya in Regent’s park and we ran into a black labrador and its owner. The woman asked me about my dog and I noticed she was an American. Well, that was enough invitation for me to start a conversation. It turned out that she had just moved to London with her family. I was able to share a lot of good tips with her about living in London. We exchanged e:mail addresses and mobile numbers. I always like making new friends but I especially like lending a helping hand to a new expat family.

The experience of living overseas may be one of the most rewarding and yet one of the most challenging experiences you will have in your life. After the initial bewilderment stage comes an opportunity to enjoy and learn. I am writing hoping to reach many of you who just moved to London with your families or even by yourselves. Perhaps you just moved to Brussels, Paris, or Tokyo. Some of my words may apply to you as well. I am here to tell you that it does get easier with each passing day and that before you know it, the strange new land you moved to, becomes your home.

When we were preparing to move to London from the US in 2011 we were very excited about the opportunity. The reason being that we had already been expats in Brussels, Belgium from 1997 – 2001. We were now seasoned expats like so many people you meet. Some families have spent their whole lives moving around the world and can only say positive things about their lifestyle. Our overall experience in Brussels was amazing. We loved it so much that we yearned to someday go abroad again. But I will admit moving to Brussels in July of 1997 was initially a very shocking experience and I can sympathize with some of you who are completely overwhelmed as you read this.

Let me share a story. When we moved to Brussels many life events converged into what seemed like a personal nuclear explosion at the time.  The first one was that I left my career. For someone who had been so career-driven this was a very difficult decision. However, I had been very willing to go on a “sabbatical” because, I was pregnant with our first child and I was presented with the opportunity to travel all over Europe, something I was passionate about.  Had I been in the states I probably would have taken a standard leave of absence and then returned to work. The advent of losing my salary and cutting our income in half was frightening. I also had to redefine who I was as a person since so much of my self-confidence and self-esteem was linked to my profession. But we were open to the life adventure ahead of us. However, during my 17thweek of pregnancy, while the movers were back at the house packing us, our lives were rattled when we received bad news about the pregnancy and baby. News that seemed so insurmountable that I questioned why were we were even moving overseas.  The baby would require surgeries after birth. At the time, I was still narrow-minded in thinking that I would only be able to receive excellent medical care for our baby in the US.  On top of that I was leaving my family and friends at a time when I needed them the most. But there was no turning back with the moving plans. Sometimes destiny does lead you in mysterious ways and Brussels was to be our next destination.

The Early Belgium Years 1998

Our  beautiful son was born on Christmas Eve 1997 in Brussels, Belgium. I would have at my disposal an amazing team of doctors who were so gifted and wonderful that even demigods would not compare. I still believe that it’s as if though we had to move to Brussels to have these incredible doctors take care of our son. What had started out as a tempest, with no calm in sight, had evolved into a clear horizon allowing my husband and I to successfully navigate our new lives in Brussels.

OK, I won’t kid you. Living in a country where they speak foreign languages, in our case French and Flemish, was difficult at times. Many Belgians spoke English which definitely helped but there were times that you had to be creative, like when the phone guy came over and we had to communicate with hand signals. Sometimes I would spend hours reading food labels in the supermarket trying to figure out if I was buying the correct item. A big help for me was joining The American Women’s Club of Brussels. They were an amazing resource of support and friendship. In August of 1999 our beautiful daughter was also born in Brussels. Our son was 19 months at that time. And now with two babies in tow we continued to explore Belgium and Europe. Our children learned to sleep in planes, trains, and automobiles.

By Chenonceaux Castle in the Loire Valley, France
2000

We got lucky because they were good babies/toddlers who allowed us to bring them everywhere, from châteaux in France to Champagne houses, from crystal shops in Prague to Michelin star restaurants.  After an amazing 4 years in Brussels we returned to the US in 2001.

Developing a Discriminating Taste for Champagne in Champagne, France
2001

Fast forward to 2011 as we prepared to return overseas…

We were now moving overseas with 13 and 12-year old children. The key was in selling them on the idea of moving very early on. It’s all in the marketing, isn’t it? What helped was that we had already moved within the US. When we returned from Brussels, we had first lived in Westport, CT for 5 years and then we had moved to West Chester, PA. The children were in 2nd and 3rd grade when we did this move, and yes it had been hard for them to leave friends, but they instantly made new ones. So when we announced we were moving to London they were absolutely fine with the idea. They were excited about living overseas and had the confidence that they would be able to make new friends. Before the move, they would ask us questions like:

“Do they have Wawa’s hoagies in London?” (For those of you not from PA/NJ area, Wawa’s is a Gasoline/Food/Convenience chain that makes delicious hoagies (heros/grinders/sandwiches))

Our answer would be, “No they don’t have Wawa’s hoagies in London but they will have different things that may be better ”.

Sure enough the children discovered that you can get some very amazing baguettes in London and the sandwiches made with these are delicious. We have opened ourselves up to new experiences with the thought that the outcomes will be positive. We keep saying to the children:

 “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”.

My husband and the children exploring the streets of Bologna, Italy
July 2001

Exploring the streets of Bellagio, Italy
August 2012

I am not here to say that change is completely easy and without challenges. Change can be very difficult at times. It’s how we manage the process of change that allows us to move forward in a productive and healthy fashion. It is important to know how to manage the stresses that get thrown our way. How we behave is also critical. Our children are watching us every step of the way. Children are very intuitive and they can sense your attitudes and feelings immediately.  Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves and at the difficult situations. Like the time my friend in Brussels went to put her Thanksgiving turkey in her oven and it did not fit. She had to carve it up and roast it in pieces. Then there’s the time I tried to use my “French” language skills, and asked the waiter for a spoon,“ une cuillère”, and instead they brought out cheese, “le gruyere”.  That’s o.k., I’ll take some of that too. You may have already faced or are in the middle of facing daunting tasks like opening bank accounts, buying cell phones, getting a phone line connected, getting internet and cable, dealing with home repairs, figuring out how to get around, grocery shopping, unpacking, baby sitters, dog sitters, or where to buy something. We waited for 3 weeks for our Sky Internet modem to arrive and we were supposedly one of the lucky ones. Just know that with each passing day it will get easier and you’ll laugh at some of the missteps over a glass of wine or pint of beer.

Walking Over the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland

Know that this overseas experience will profoundly change you and your family members in so many positive ways. How you perceive the world and react to it will be different and better. This experience will test your and your family’s resolve, flexibility, and even relationships. For many it will bring you closer as a family. Open yourselves up to this new adventure with a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to organizations and support groups. Try new foods, make new friends, explore new places and hopefully you’ll look back at the expat years as some of the most amazing years of your life.