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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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.

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.