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

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Expat Living in London

Shopping on Oxford Street.

Shopping on Oxford Street.

I was recently asked to contribute an article to the expat website World of Expats. This website provides useful information and tips to anyone considering moving overseas on a work assignment. Below is the article I contributed to World of Expats. At the end I provide additional links to the World of Expats site as well as related articles that I have written about expat and London living.

My family just returned from living in London for two years. We moved there with two teen-
aged children and a chocolate Labrador Retriever in 2011. As a family we feel those two years were some of the most exciting and valuable experiences in our lives. Whether you are single or a family considering an expat assignment in London, I’m here to say, “Go for it”. 

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

London is an absolutely beautiful city contrasting both modern and classic architecture. Nestled throughout the city are eight picturesque Royal Parks providing ample green space. Our dog certainly enjoyed the parks especially in the areas that she was allowed to go leash-free.

Discovering London on foot.

Discovering London on foot.

London has outstanding public transportation in the form of the underground and buses. If you absolutely need a car, you may want to consider the following: 1) getting a UK license requires lessons and thorough preparation for the test, 2) finding parking in London is challenging, and 3) remember the English drive on the left-hand side of the street. Another option is to rent cars as needed with services like Zip Car. We chose to not have a car during our 2-year stay and did absolutely great getting around.

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

London offers an enormous array of entertainment for all ages. Whether you like museums, theater, ballet, concerts, or traditional tourist attractions, you will have plenty to pick from. London is a world capital with people from all over the world living there and calling it home. This was a huge highlight for me personally, to be able to meet people from around the world and enjoy such an international experience. London used to have a reputation for having bad food. Well not anymore! The food revolution began around 2001 and London has become a culinary destination. You will be able savor Michelin star cuisine and still enjoy traditional English pub food. There are also amazing outdoor food markets.

Our favorite food market, The Borough Market

Our favorite food market, Borough Market

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

It is important to understand some of the practical aspects of living in London as an expatriate. For starters the cost of living is high. As with any expensive city in the world, you will find rentals very pricey. However, depending on neighborhood you will also have many choices to pick from. Set your expectations appropriately, this is city living and space is at a premium.

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

If you have children, there are excellent British, International, and American schools to pick from. We chose to send our children to The American School in London located in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. We chose this school because we wanted our children to continue with the American school system. The British and International school systems are slightly different. I will share that although our school was “American”, there were over 45 nationalities represented giving the school a very international flair. I recommend you apply to schools as early as possible.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux. I saw him twice in our 2 years in London.

Opening bank accounts in the UK is a lengthy process. Again, begin this as soon as you can and even before you officially move. For some strange reason, getting telephone, cable, and internet installed in London is quite a challenge. Request these services early in your moving preparations and be PATIENT. We thought we were so on top of things by setting up these services 4 months ahead of time, only to discover once we arrived in London that the cable modem box would take yet another 4 weeks to arrive. I suppose the advice of being patient is very important when you embark on any expat assignment.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone. We saw the actor Bill Nighy once.

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

It is certainly advantageous to move to a country where English is the main language. As with any foreign travel or living, it helps to learn about and appreciate your host country and culture. The English have some unique norms and customs as well as their own form of “British” English. Take the time to learn them. When we first told our children we were moving to London they had a million questions for us. We felt it was very important for us to set the appropriate expectations. For example, they would ask us if there were certain foods or activities in London that they had back at home. The standard answer became, “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”. We embarked on our adventure with an open mind and a positive attitude. In our two years in London we visited over 25 UK and European cities.

The Tower of London Bridge

The Tower Bridge

We also experienced “city” living and were exposed to a wonderfully diverse community. If you ask any of our family members if they would do this again, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.

For more of our expat and London living and select the corresponding tabs:  https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/

About Finding Housing in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/finding-housing-in-london/

About London Post Codes: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

About Borough Market: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/borough-market/

About moving overseas: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/moving-overseas/

About the Queens Jubilee celebration: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/london-gets-ready-for-the-queens-jubilee/

About Eating Around the World in London: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/eating-around-the-world-in-london/

To visit the World of Expat site go to: http://www.worldofexpats.com/

Frisoles Colombianos con Arroz, Chorizo, y Aguacate

Easy Colombian Beans with Rice, Chorizo, and Avocado

Serves 4

Frisoles with Rice, Chorizo, and Avocado

Frisoles with Rice, Chorizo, and Avocado

How about impressing your friends with a delicious and easy to make Colombian dinner. Frisoles or fríjoles are a very typical meal in the state of Antioquia where my city Medellin is located. Frisoles is the food of the mountains, the food of the people, and the food of comfort. If you find yourself in Medellin, rest assured that there is a pot of pressure-cooked beans in every kitchen on a daily basis. These beans may have been made for lunch but they reheat beautifully for dinner or for the next day’s breakfast. Lunch tends to be the main meal served in Colombia. Lunch will consist of a “la sopa y el seco”, translating to the soup and the “dry”. The dry portion can consist of either meat and rice or potatoes with vegetables or a salad. Beans can be served as the soup portion of the lunch. But like many Antioqueños, I love to mix my beans with my seco.

When I cook my beans I make them in a thicker broth and serve them together with rice and meat on a plate. In this recipe I serve them with chorizo. There are two ways of making this bean recipe. You can use either canned beans or pressure-cooked beans. Canned beans is an easier and quicker option. These are generally a good option depending on the brand. You may find some brands a little tougher than others, which will require that you cook them longer on the stove. In this recipe, I use canned beans and make a vegetarian version of the frisoles. Alternatively, I promise you that it is very easy to pressure cook beans. I like to pressure cook pinto beans with beef stew meat and other seasonings for an outstanding meal.

Ingredients

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  • 1 Tbs canola oil
  • 1 cup diced red or green pepper (1 small pepper)
  • 1 cup diced yellow onion (1 medium or ½ of large onion)
  • 1 glove of garlic passed through a garlic press or minced
  • 1 cup diced tomato (fresh or half of a 14 oz can) Use more tomato if you want
  • 2 – 14 to 16 oz. cans of beans with their liquid (pinto or borlotti)
  • ½ cup to 1 cup of water
  • ½ cup to 1 cup of chopped cilantro (coriander leaves)
  • ½ to 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp kosher or regular salt
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • Black pepper to taste

Preparation

You begin by making the “sofrito”, a tomato sauce used as a base in Latin American and Caribbean cooking. In some instances the sofrito is made by pureeing raw vegetables and seasonings and then adding the puree to a recipe. I chose not to puree my sofrito in this case. I like the added texture of the vegetables in the beans.

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Making the sofrito

  • Heat the oil in a large pot
  • Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes
  • Add the pepper and cook for 2- 3 additional minutes
  • Add the tomato and cook until most of the liquid disappears, about 5 – 10 additional minutes.
  • Add the cans of beans with their liquid
  • Add the water (can add more if you like the beans to have more of a soup consistency)
  • Add salt, cumin, oregano, and black pepper.

    Add Beans and seasonings

    Add Beans and seasonings

  • Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer on low heat for 10 – 15 minutes or until beans are tender and the liquid is thickened.
  • Add cilantro
  • Adjust salt and pepper

    Ready to Serve

    Ready to Serve

You are ready to serve. Accompany the beans with chorizo, rice, and avocado slices.

Buen Provecho!

Additional Comments:

Rice: I like to serve this recipe with yellow rice however white rice is perfectly fine and probably more typical in Colombia. I use long grain white rice. To make yellow rice, the purist would use saffron, which is an expensive spice and imparts its unique flavor. However, I make the poor man’s yellow rice using turmeric powder which is less expensive than saffron. Turmeric does not impart a flavor, but gives its beautiful golden color to the food it is used in and offers added health benefits.

Chorizo: Chorizo can be either a fresh sausage that needs cooking or a cured sausage that can be eaten as is.  If you live in London there is only one chorizo brand to be purchased, and that is the fresh chorizo sold by Brindisa at Borough Market. It is by far the best quality fresh chorizo I have purchased and prepared in my life. If you live in the states you’ll have some varying options available to you but it is also very dependent on geography. Here in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I find most chorizos are extremely fatty, tough, and chewy. That said, my quest for excellent chorizo is still on going. I have in my refrigerator a brand I bought at Whole Foods recently. I’ll let you know how that is.  I may have to resort to making my own chorizo!

Arepas: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention arepas. Any Antioqueño would tell me I’m crazy for serving beans without arepas. Arepas are flat breads made with freshly ground maize but today there are “instant” arepa flours that you can purchase in the stores (Masarepa and P.A.N.) There are many ways to serve arepas, as an accompaniment to a dish or on their own. Arepas are also great for stuffing. This is definitely a fun topic for a future blog.

Avocados: see my posting on guacamole to learn more about avocados

https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/guacamole-a-family-affair/

To read my favorite Colombian food blogger’s site:

http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/

For more on the pressure cooked Colombian beans:

http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/cazuelita-de-frijoles-colombian-beans-cazuela

Another Day in Maya’s London Life

One of Maya’s favorite pass times in London was going on adventurous walks. On this spring morning, Maya took us to some of her favorite London sights and shared some of her thoughts.

 

At the Wellington Arch

“You want me sitting where?”

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At Buckingham Palace

 “I cannot wait for my Corgi friends to come out and play in the Royal Gardens!”

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Standing by the Red Phone Booth

 “Indeed, one must admit to oneself that there is a presence of brilliant odours enveloping these boxes.”

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The Bobby by Big Ben

“Who’s Bobby and who’s Ben anyway?”

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On the Westminster Bridge with a View of the London Eye

 “We are allowed on the London underground and buses but not the fun ride. That’s not very nice and it makes me sad.”

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Across from The Parliament Building

 “Can I please, please, please jump in and swim?”

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At Westminster Abbey in Quiet Contemplation

“What is my life’s purpose? To eat, to sleep, and to go on walks but most importantly to teach my humans about love, patience, humility and loyalty.”

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London Taxi Cab

 “My human says London cabbies are the best in the world… that’s interesting… ooh, I think I see a doggie friend over there.”

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Modeling Along the Mall

 “This is definitely getting old, can we please please just continue walking. I see another park down the road!”

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Riding the Bus Home

 “I’m really tired now, oh but is that a potato chip I see over there?”

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Time for a Nap

“Exhaustion overtakes me… I must rest up today for tomorrow will bring another adventure. ”

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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”.

Happy Mother’s Day to My Friend Consuelo

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I met Consuelo two years ago when I first moved to London. The name “Consuelo” means comfort or consolation in Spanish. We met while walking our dogs in our neighborhood. She is a nanny for a family with two children and a handsome black Labrador Retriever. Her dog and mine took an instant liking to each other. Her dog is 11 years old and still looks very youthful. Consuelo shared that the secret for her dog’s youthful look and good health was that she had fed him freshly cooked chicken and rice since he was a puppy. Spoiled boy!  Consuelo shared that she had moved from her native Ecuador to London over 30 years ago. So we had always chatted in Spanish. Over the months, we would run into each other with our dogs. Most of the time Consuelo would be pushing a stroller with an adorable little girl who is now 3 years old. One weekend afternoon I ran into Consuelo with the family that she works for and I found out that their older son had severe disabilities. Consuelo also cared for this little boy.

The months would go by and we would continue to meet each other and share pleasantries on the street. Then Friday morning was a special day. I was on my way to a coffee gathering when I ran into her with the little girl. We said our hellos and the cute little girl who recognizes me gave me a huge smile. It turned out we were walking in the same direction so off we went to the St. John’s Wood high street and chatted for about 15 minutes.

She would share so much in just those 15 minutes. She would open up in such a way that even she surprised herself. I asked how the little boy that she watches was. She said he was doing ok. She shared that it is always so challenging to take care of his needs. It is an exhausting job for both the parents and Consuelo. I told her I so admired her patience in dealing with the boy. My friend commented that she is always so concerned when they hire a babysitter for when Consuelo cannot be there. Consuelo will review a thousand things with the new sitter to ensure he is well taken care of. You can tell she is very protective of him. One day last week, Consuelo was preparing the boy for a bath. The boy is about 7 or 8 years old. As Consuelo lifted him to put him in his bath, he turned his face, and he placed his open mouth on her cheek in what appeared to be an attempt to kiss her. She was so moved because it was his first attempt at kissing and of showing any signs of affection. Consuelo could not believe it, and even as she recounted the story she was filled with goose bumps. The little boy had not even done this with his own mother. I said to Consuelo, “That little boy loves you so much. He must sense and recognize your dedication to him.” The outside world only sees the boy’s disabilities and suffering, while Consuelo focuses on improving his quality of life while showering him with love and affection.

Consuelo then shared that she and her husband were expecting a grandchild. I congratulated her and asked if it was their first one. She said it wasn’t but that it was the first girl and she was obviously very excited. She said her oldest grandson was 11 years old. She was delighted to share that her grandson had just been awarded a full scholarship for the rest of his education in London. She commented that the family was very pleased with this since her son had limited financial resources. As we walked further, she turned and said, “You see my son is disabled, he’s been in a wheel chair since he was a child”. She went on to tell me some wonderful stories about her son and how he has tried to live independently and support his family. I asked her if he was the reason why they had left Ecuador and she said yes. Her son would not have had much of a future in her native country back then.

I turned to Consuelo and I said something like, “Dios te escogió para este labor por una razón muy especial”, which translates into “God hand picked you for this task for a very special reason”. I could not get over the fact that after raising her own disabled child she would find the fortitude and patience to repeat the whole experience all over again by helping raise another family’s child with special needs.

We arrived at the high street and were getting ready to say our goodbyes. But she had one more story to share. She told me how her son had adapted a vehicle that allowed him to store his wheel chair on the roof and was therefore able to drive everywhere. It pleases him very much that he can transport his own family. You could sense how proud she is of her son. No doubt her son gets a lot of his “can do” attitude from his mother who through her example taught him to never give up. Consuelo continues to share this love and perseverance with the children she watches. And in return those children adore her not just as a caregiver or nanny but also more like a grandmother. Not to mention the family dog who also adores her because she showers him with love and attention too, oh and with freshly cooked chicken and rice, as well!

My heart filled with such joy to have met Consuelo and to have run into her on that particular Friday morning. I turned to her and said, “I must hug you”, and I did. She thanked me for listening to her and said she shared these stories with me because she felt I was a special person. I was very moved. We said “Hasta Luego” (See You Later) and went in our different directions. It may be the last time I run into her since I will be moving back to the US. I often wonder why people’s paths cross. I like to think that it is not just coincidence but that somehow it is meant to be, that there is a reason for it. Even if it is just to say, I am so proud to have known such a special person and role model like Consuelo.

Happy Mother’s Day

London Department Store Offers New Service: Baby Hanging

Yesterday afternoon I was at the Westfield Shopping Center in Shepherd’s Bush (London) killing time while my daughter took her ballet class nearby.

I went into the department store, Marks & Spencer, to buy a card and decided to visit the toilet as it is referred to here. As I looked for the ladies’ room I came across the following door.

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What? Baby Hanging? I wondered what it meant. As Americans living in London we are accustomed to hearing and learning different phrases and words used by the Brits. So I figured this had to be one of them. I kept staring at the door and wondering, wow, is that what they really call a diaper changing area in this country. I also thought, “Strange how I have not come across this term before”.  As I took the picture I thought of how terrible but funny it sounded.

“Baby Hanging”

I had images of hooking the baby to some kind of device that allowed you to change its nappy (diaper) while in an upright position…or perhaps if as a mummy (mommy) you ran out of positive parenting skills and were at wit’s end you…

As I washed my hands, I noticed two ladies also taking a picture of the Baby Hanging door as they entered the ladies’ room. I engaged them in conversation and soon we were all laughing together about the door. (Cannot imagine this happening in the men’s room) I recognized their British accent and realized that it was not an English Phrase on the door but the fact that the letter “C” had fallen off the door. They too were amused with the new service being offered by M & S.